“The Olympics are where heroes are created; the Paralympics are where heroes come.”
As the effects of COVID-19 continues to engulf the world months after the initial outbreaks, it came as no surprise in March when the Prime Minister of Japan decided to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to 2021. Despite this frustrating but necessary delay, audiences and athletes alike can still celebrate the spirit of sporting events.
“TA-DUM”… The iconic Netflix logo glides onto the black screen before quickly fading away into darkness. Triumphant and rising music plays in adjacent to an introduction that better resembles an epic campaign video, consisting of impressive action shots and bright neon colours before showcasing the film’s title in all its glory.
Rising Phoenix is a captivating documentary that illustrates the extraordinary story of the Paralympic Games and the power of human determination. The film explores the roots of the Paralympics and how the world’s third biggest sporting event continues to challenge society’s perceptions of diversity, disability, and perseverance. Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, Rising Phoenix features a diverse line-up of Paralympian athletes from around the globe. Athletes featured in the film include Bebe Vio (Italy), Ellie Cole (Australia), Jean-Baptiste Alaize (France), Matt Stutzman (USA), Jonnie Peacock (UK), Cui Zhe (China), Ryley Batt (Australia), Ntando Mahlangu (South Africa) and Tatyana McFadden (US).
Ellie Cole, an Australian swimmer, is introduced to the audience. Cole had a rare form of cancer as a young child, and her leg was amputated. Her parents were deeply worried as they didn’t know any other disabled people, and they had no idea what the future held for their daughter. We meet another amputee, Jean-Baptise Alaize, who is also a survivor of the Burundian Civil War in 1993. Alaize’s mother was murdered right before his eyes, and he was hacked at with an axe. He survived and grew up in an orphanage before moving to France and later becoming a Paralympic sprinter. Matt Stulzman is an American archer who was born without any arms. He fell in love with archery because a bow doesn’t care if you have arms or legs, it just wants to be shot. Stulzman brings a fresh perspective throughout the film, delivering humour and charisma with every sentence. He jokes that he could never be a basketball player because he’s too short (as opposed to him not having arms).
Before 2012, the Paralympics were notorious for unpredictable attendance, with many hosting countries failing to promote the sporting events. In 2012, London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and completely changed the course of history. Channel 4 was selected to broadcast the London Paralympics, as opposed to the BBC; in the days after the Olympics but before the Paralympics, black billboards sprung up everywhere with the words “thanks for the warm-up”. Between footage of the vibrant opening ceremony celebrations and Stephen Hawking‘s speech, we meet Sir Philip Craven of the International Committee. A shot of the Paralympics symbol, the agitos, is seen rising in replacement of the Olympic rings.
British Paralympian Jonnie Peacock speaks about the irregularity of attendance at former Paralympic Games, but that London was different. Peacock regales the tale of when he won the 100 meters against Oscar Pistorius. The crowds weren’t cheering because the athletes are disabled, but because it was an epic sporting event. Prince Harry, the founder of The Invictus Games, narrates his description of the roaring crowds and cheering spectators. He goes on to say that the spirit of a great sporting event is vital for young children in the stands, as no amount of teaching in the classroom could muster the same inspiration.
We meet Eva Loeffler, the daughter of Sir Ludwig Guttmann. The Paralympics, as we know it, was first created by Sir Guttmann, a Jewish doctor who was persecuted during the Nazi reign. Sir Ludwig had once said that becoming disabled is “a new way of life”, and that disabled people should be taxpaying citizens with friends and family like anyone else. Initially formed as part of rehabilitation for war veterans, the disability sports movement took off, and the Stoke Mandeville Games were first held in London in 1948. The Stoke Mandeville Games later developed into the Paralympic Games in 1960 in Rome. Sir Ludwig died in 1980, before the Netherland Games. His daughter attended Arnhem and sat next to a man with severe CP. He had a board he used to spell out letters, and he asked why she was there. She said she was there because of her father. He typed out “He is a great man”.
The documentary cuts to the announcement of the hosts for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. Rio de Janeiro was selected as the hosting city, but it soon transpired that the entire budget for both Games was spent on the Olympics. Sir Philip Craven and Andrew Persons had to step in and resolve the Rio de Janeiro cash crisis, rearranging resources so that the Paralympics could go ahead. The President of Brazil was impeached at the time, but they managed to secure funding after presenting their case to a judge. Brazil is a country with 24 million disabled people, and through their actions, the Rio Olympic Committee essentially stated that the Paralympics are not important and not worth the effort. The Paralympic Games was like a ghost town at first, as the Committee hadn’t sold any tickets. Gradually, the Paralympic spirit kicked in, more people found out about the events, and ultimately there was a higher number of people that attended the Paralympic Park than at the Olympic Park. Prince Harry reiterates that not only are lives being changed on the track, but also in the stands. Ntando Mahlangu, a South African Paralympian, comments that while you want crowds at these events, you are there representing where you’re from. He is running for all the people that played a role in his life.
Disabled people are still hidden away and ostracised in countries like Russia and China. Russia once refused to host the Paralympic Games in 1980, with other hosting cities like Atlanta and Athens failing to promote these sporting events. Cui Zhe, a Chinese weightlifting Paralympian, spoke about her experiences as a disabled person living in China, and how before the Paralympics took place in Beijing, China didn’t have high expectations of the disability community. However, it’s not just those countries who mistreats its disabled citizens; Alaize provides us with a stark reminder about rising hate crime and the verbal abuse he faced in France, with Cole stating that she was a prime candidate for bullying growing up. She once threw her prosthetic at a boy who kept making fun of her. Mahlangu (and a CGI cheetah) reminds us that some countries still think that it is a curse to have a disabled child.
Paralympian and Rising Phoenix producer Tatyanna McFadden was born in Russia in the 80s, where she was adopted and brought to America. She went on to compete at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, returning with a medal. She came back to America and found that she wasn’t allowed to perform at school sporting events. She successfully sued for disabled people to have the right to participate in sports, and the Sports and Fitness Equity Law was later created, otherwise known as Tatyanna’s Law.
The documentary closes with championing shots of the featured Paralympians’ statues, and an original song written and performed by two-time Golden Globe Award nominee Daniel Pemberton, and three disabled artists: georgetragic, Keith Jones, and Toni Hickman. Rising Phoenix is the epitome of epic, layered with rich shots throughout, and raw and powerful moments of sheer determination. Above all else, it is a celebration of disability and human potential. During a Q&A event hosted by Netflix and BFI, the directors and producers acknowledged that there was only wheelchair users and amputee interviewees featured, and that although they had reached out to various parties to no avail, there was still much to do in terms of disability representation. Rising Phoenix is a documentary for the ages, and one that will simultaneously change the perceptions of non-disabled people and inspire disabled audiences.
RISING PHOENIX is available on Netflix globally from 26th August.