‘Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down’ Directors Talk Congresswoman’s ‘Inspiring’ Rehab From Brain Trauma (Video)

“She worked really hard and kept a sense of humor in some really difficult times,” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West said of doc premiering at SXSW

Julie Cohen and Betsy West knew they had to make their movie “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” about former U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when, in their first video call with her, they saw that she and her husband, Sen. Mark Kelly, had kept a piece of her skull in a tupperware in their freezer. Right next to the empanadas.

“They showed that to us early on and we immediately were like, that’s a scene in our film,” Cohen told TheWrap, even though in the moment, their documentary didn’t yet exist. “We were just dazzled really by Gabby in particular from that very first wonderful meeting.”

“From the very moment we met Gabby, it was obvious she would make an incredible subject for a documentary,” West added.

Giffords was a rising star in the Democratic Party when in 2011 she was shot in the head during a mass shooting in Arizona. Many news outlets even declared her dead. She not only survived but has rehabilitated to be able to lead activist work on sensible gun control and help her husband win a senate seat. But Cohen and West’s (“RBG,” “Julia,” “My Name is Pauli Murray”) new documentary film shows Giffords is far more than just her accident.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” which premieres at SXSW on Saturday, discusses her early career, her fight for sensible gun control and her unique romance with Mark Kelly. But it centers heavily on Giffords’ struggle with a speech condition known as aphasia, which is a language disorder in which a person is unable to understand or express speech, despite being able to think the words in your brain. The film demonstrates the constant effort she exerts to complete simple thoughts or recite speeches, even as she’s been determined to get back out on the campaign trail.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down Julie Cohen Betsy West Gabrielle Giffords Mark Kelly
CNN Films

While many suffer from aphasia as a result of a stroke, Giffords’ condition was a result of the brain damage she suffered from her gun shot wound that very few ever survive, and “Won’t Back Down” features striking footage of Giffords’ early rehab work while still in the hospital. Among some of the more shocking details on her road to recovery were how Giffords was able to sing, yet still not speak clearly. She also would find herself repeatedly using the word “chicken” in one therapy session, something that Giffords’ speech pathologists to this day don’t understand the root of.

“We learned a ton about aphasia in the process of making this film,” Cohen said. “As Gabby says, ‘The brain! Who knew?”

All that remarkable footage was available to Cohen and West because Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, was trained in how to operate a video camera while in space and thought to document his wife’s recovery far before they ever imagined a documentary would be in their future. And in watching it, they were warmed at just how spirited and funny Giffords remains to this day.

“You see in those early scenes when she’s first being able to speak and the therapist is singing the song, and how are you feeling, and her answer is, ‘Bad,’ and she smiles and everybody laughs. Because of course, this is so tough. But it just shows her whole approach to recovery. She worked really hard and kept a sense of humor in some really difficult times. It is pretty inspiring and fascinating to watch,” West said.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” premieres at SXSW on Saturday before debuting on CNN+. See more from TheWrap’s interview with Julie Cohen and Betsy West above.