A celebration of the Paralympics movement and its heroes, Netflix’s “Rising Phoenix,” which debuts Aug. 26, gives sports fans a jolt of greatness, inspiration, history and drop-dead gorgeous photography.
Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (“McQueen”) zero in on what makes athletes special: Their work ethic and determination. Some of the featured athletes include Matt Stutzman, an archery champion who was born without arms and uses his feet to shoot; Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair racer who was told she couldn’t compete in high school; or Ellie Cole, a swimmer with one leg who continues to break records.
Besides McFadden, Cole and Stutzman, the film also features fencer Bebe Vio, sprinter Jonnie Peacock, runner Jean-Baptiste Alaize, powerlifter Cui Zhe, wheelchair rugby player Ryley Batt and South African track athlete Ntando Mahlangu.
The tenets of determination, positivity and motivation are threaded through the doc.
“People shy away from stories that encompass disabilities and suffering,” said producer John Battsek (“Circus of Books,” “Citizen K”). “This is a film about ability and humans pushing themselves.”
Paralympics founder Dr. Ludwig Guttman fled Nazi Germany with his family for England. He treated soldiers with spinal injuries and, most importantly, believed that sports would help them with their rehabilitation and restore their self-worth. Guttman’s remarkable story and spirit led to the first Paralympic Games in 1948, coinciding with the Olympic Games in London that year.
“It was the greatest story never told,” said Ettedgui. “They’re driven to change people’s hearts and minds and change society. That’s something that really spoke to us.”
For the filmmakers, “It kind of represents the best of humanity. We did feel that this story speaks way beyond people with disabilities,” Ettedgui said.
It’s also about advocacy for people with disabilities. “One man’s dream is now the third largest sporting event,” said McFadden, who is also executive producer. “I had a vision and wanted to transform that word [disability].”
What Bonhôte and Ettedgui do is introduce the athletes as they would Marvel superheroes or Greek gods. “They saw two perceptions of the athletes — dressed up and elegant — and they saw the hardcore working out,” said McFadden.
“None of them were well-known or national heroes as they should be,” said Bonhôte. “So this was really interesting to us as filmmakers. All the stories were heartwarming and powerful stories.”
But that’s not to say that the filmmakers wallowed in sentimentality. Quite the opposite.
“I want them to know you are the only person that limits your abilities,” says Stutzman, who taught himself to hunt with a bow and arrow to feed his family. Now he is a world champion and motivational speaker. Oh, and he loves to build cars. “I just sold a car I built!” he said.
“We wanted the mood to be one of defiance,” said Bonhote, who added that they wanted to create “movie moments. Get into their minds. Elevate them. We wanted to celebrate these people … They were very generous with their time. We wanted to make something where people wouldn’t look away.”
To that end, there’s gorgeous photography one would expect in a sports documentary as well as drama and one star advocate: Prince Harry, founder of the Invictus Games, in which wounded, injured or sick veterans compete in sporting events.
And while the world is embroiled in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, these athletes had to postpone their dreams and must now also look ahead to 2021 in order to compete in the next Paralympic Games.
Adaptability is also a theme woven through the film. “One thing that people can learn from people with disabilities is that we are adaptable,” said McFadden, who is continuing to advocate for disability rights (“It’s the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act!” she noted with glee) and train for Tokyo 2021.
In fact, this film’s release date was supposed to coincide with the opening of the Paralympics in Tokyo.
“Even though the Olympics has been postponed until next year, it’s a perfect time for this film to come out because we have globally embraced things like Black Lives Matter, and we’re all examining our own attitudes,” said Bonhôte.
McFadden and Battsek praised Netflix’s commitment to the film.
“Our ambition was always to bring this story to as many people as possible,” said Battsek, who noted the streamer’s passion for the material.
McFadden said that Netflix’s commitment to promoting the film on social media and making it disability-friendly was gratifying.
Bonhôte summed up ‘Rising Phoenix” quite well: “The Olympics are where heroes are created. The Paralympics are where heroes come.”