There’s something incredibly heartening about the new Netflix documentary RISING PHOENIX in a time when so many selfish, pigheaded Americans refuse to wear masks to fight COVID-19. Those screaming about being encumbered should watch the incredible Paralympic athletes in the film who’ve overcome genuine physical disabilities to understand what real hardship is. Indeed, RISING PHOENIX is not only a documentary that showcases the indomitable human spirit of these Paralympians, but it’s one that should encourage the viewer to put some of our pain in better perspective.
Human stories about exceptional athletes have been told brilliantly since the 1960s and the heyday of Sports Illustrated magazine and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Filmmakers Iman Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui had their work cut out for them but in many ways have managed to surpass such landmarks by telling their Paralympic stories with a blazing honesty seldom seen in such vehicles, not to mention superb production values in their telling that rival any studio tentpole.
Take the first athlete profile in that documentary, that of Australian swimmer Ellie Cole. She’s a 28-year-old Australian who lost a leg to cancer when she was only three. She started swimming as part of a rehabilitation program and progressed to a competitive level by her adolescence. Bonhote and Ettedgui let her own words detail such events, as tragic and harrowing though they may be to hear. Cole’s testimony accompanies achingly real home movies that show her struggling in the hospital and in the pool to overcome her handicap. But then, mixed in with such raw footage, are filmed scenes that showcase the beauty of her abilities today. Dramatically lit, Cole performs a virtual aquatic ballet both sensual and ethereal. It’s a breathtaking tribute to all that she’s become.
From there, Bonhote and Ettedgui showcase many more Paralympians in episodic fashion, blending interviews, newsreel highlights, and specially shot footage that illustrates the beauty of the human body in motion. The fact that it may be a man running with an artificial limb or a young weight lifter who is paralyzed from the waist down seems beside the point. Such physical achievements are utterly striking, no matter how much of one’s body is participating.
Amongst such athletes are: Jean-Baptiste Alaize, a Tutsi runner who lost a leg to a Hutu machete during the Burundi civil war of 1993; Ryley Batt, a wheelchair-bound rugby player from Australia born without legs and certain fingers; and Bebe Vio, an 11-year-old Italian fencer of promise whose body was ravaged by meningitis and claimed her arms and legs before her teenage years. They, like the other athletes profiled, speak frankly about their circumstances. It may be harrowing, but it’s never less than compelling.
Vio has a tremendous personality, a Puckish grin that belies her mature wisdom. She tells of how when her illness ruined her life, she asked God, “Why me? I’ve been a good student…There are a lot of bad guys in prison. Give them this really bad situation!” She can laugh at it now, dismissing her complaints with the simple fact that, “Shit happens.” She could’ve let her awful luck defeat her, but instead, she cut it down to size with her blade. Vio’s in an incredible lesson, rendered all the more impressive by her athletic prowess in the Games, as well as her sexy attitude when she rocks a pseudo runway walk for some of the documentary’s B-roll.
The film also avidly explains the history of the Paralympic Games, showing newsreel clips of everyone from Adolf Hitler to Queen Elizabeth, and modern-day interviews with the likes of Prince Harry. Paralympic leaders Sir Philip Craven and Xavi Gonzales are interviewed extensively too, at times serving as the doc’s unofficial narrators. One of the cheekier moments comes when Craven chuckles about how the Paralympics advertised all over London in 2012, right after the regular games left town, using the clever headline, “Thanks for the warm-up.”
Another standout is Tatyana McFadden, a charming young woman and gifted track star who, despite medaling in the Paralympic games, still came home to her school rejecting her wishes to join the regular track team. Her pluck kept such discrimination from getting the best of her, but it’s still shocking to see how some powers-that-be just don’t want to expand the tent. How’s that old proverb go – – a hero often is just another citizen in their own hometown?
Yet, even with all the uplifting stories, compelling drama, and stunning footage showcased here, the film finds irony in how the Paralympics suffer many of the same indignities befalling the regular sports world today. Raising money to support their teams is always an issue, and far too often the Paralympics pay for the sins of the regular Olympic games. When Russians in 2016 were banned from competing for juicing, the innocent Paralympic athletes from that country were held back as well. And the Rio Games in 2016 almost didn’t happen due to sluggish ticket sales and poor budgeting by the various committees.
Marvel Studios and DC/WB may think they’ve cornered the market on superhero movies, but after watching the athletes in RISING PHOENIX, you’ll realize just who are the genuine articles. These Paralympians have turned their disabilities into their own super-strengths and such stories make this film one of 2020’s very best documentaries.