Review: The Olympics are postponed, but ‘Rising Phoenix’ spotlights athletes of the Paralympics
Days before the close of the 2012 London Olympics, banners appeared around the city bearing the logo of the soon-to-follow Paralympic Games and proclaiming, “Thanks for the warm-up.” That cheeky, irreverent attitude permeates the new Netflix documentary “Rising Phoenix,” written and directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui.
The film, which spans from the celebratory London games to the imperiled 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, profiles nine elite athletes (each of whose stories could merit its own documentary) and looks back to chronicle the games’ fascinating evolution. Started by Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist, as a one-day event for wounded British soldiers at Stoke Mandeville Hospital to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics, the games gained momentum with the first official staging in Rome in 1960.
Interviewees who provide context and insight into the contentious political workings and background of the games include International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons, former IPC president Sir Philip Craven, former IPC CEO Xavier Gonzalez, Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, a longtime supporter of disabled athletes.
The Paralympic movement is a celebration of differences. As lanky Australian swimmer Ellie Cole says, “In the Olympics, all the bodies look the same. In the Paralympics, none of the bodies look the same.” The documentary frames these athletes as superheroes and their bodies as magnificent sculptures.
Among them is Italian wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio, whose nickname gives the film its Marvelesque title. A fierce dynamo who lost her arms and legs to meningitis when she was 11, Vio exudes vivacity in her interviews and combines physical grace and lightning fast reflexes in her matches.
Besides Cole, whose leg was amputated as a toddler, and Vio, other athletes featured are stoic French sprinter and long jumper Jean-Baptiste Alaize, who lost his legs at age 3 during the Burundian Civil War; British sprinter Jonnie Peacock, who was afforded a pop star’s ovation in London, where he defeated the now notorious Oscar Pistorius; and droll American archer Matt Stutzman, born without arms, who declares that “a bow just wants to be shot” and uses his feet to accomplish the task.
South African sprinter and long jumper Ntando Mahlangu began using carbon-fiber “cheetah” blades at age 10 and it changed his life; celebrated Russian-born, American-raised wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden took up cross-country skiing to compete in the Winter Games at Sochi in 2014; the lives of Chinese powerlifter Cui Zhe and her family improved after Beijing hosted the 2008 Paralympics, giving disabled people rare visibility in that country; after years of playing wheelchair rugby (a.k.a. Murderball), Australia’s Ryley Batt discovered his identity through the sport.
It should surprise no one that Bonhôte and Ettedgui previously made “McQueen,” a documentary on the late fashion designer. “Rising Phoenix” is bursting with a glossy visual style courtesy of director of photography Will Pugh, casting the athletes as gods whose speed, strength and finesse shatter preconceptions the world sometimes foists upon them. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s frenetic rock opera-like score embodies their swagger and grit.
For though they face a range of challenges and come from different continents, they share a fierce determination to prove their athleticism. Being disabled is usually the furthest thing from their minds.
“Give us a chance and we’ll show you what we can do,” says Craven of Great Britain, a five-time Paralympian. “If not, we’ll make our own chances.”
For anyone missing this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, postponed to March, “Rising Phoenix” is a fitting bridge for one night, resoundingly demonstrating that an athlete is an athlete. You will never watch the games in the same way.
Rated: PG-13 for thematic content, brief violent images, some strong language and brief suggestive references
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
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