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‘Rising Phoenix’ celebrates the power and passion of Paralympians

August 31, 2020
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One of the many things that we lost to the pandemic this year was the 2020 Olympic Games. Set to take place in Tokyo this summer, the event has been moved to 2021. It’s easy to forget, however, that losing the Olympics means losing more than just those Games.

Specifically, we also are deprived of the Paralympic Games, an event that is not only a way to celebrate differently-abled athletes on the global stage, but is actually the third-largest sporting event in the world.

“Rising Phoenix,” a documentary by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui currently streaming on Netflix, is an in-depth look at the Paralympic Games through the eyes of its organizers and its competitors. It is a heartfelt and inspirational journey through the history of the Games, both in terms of how it came to be and what it means to those who participate.

Watching the best in the world do what they do is always compelling. Compounding that excellence with the remarkable fortitude that comes with overcoming additional hurdles to reach that apex is exponentially more so. This is a remarkable portrait of some remarkable athletes, a film that celebrates the multitude of ways in which someone can excel in the world of sport.

It should also be noted that “Rising Phoenix” is an absolutely stunning film to look at. These athletes are presented in ways that reflect their outsized talent and determination, with images reminiscent of superhero origin stories or renderings that recall statuary representing Greek gods. This bold aesthetic, matched with incredible footage of both competition and training, allows these athletes and their accomplishments the larger-than-life appearance that they warrant.

The athletes we meet run the gamut. There’s wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, who fought to compete alongside the able-bodied in high school. Or Ellie Cole, a swimmer with one leg breaking records in the pool. There’s archer Matt Stutzman, a man born without arms who uses his feet to be an elite performer with bow and arrow. Jonnie Peacock is an elite sprinter missing a leg; Ntando Mahlangu is a long jumper missing both. Wheelchair rugby legend Ryley Batt, powerlifter Cui Zhe, runner Jean-Baptiste Alaise – the list goes on and on.

The breakout star of the film, to my mind, however, is Italian fencer Bebe Vio, a young woman whose elite fencing career was derailed by a bout with meningitis that cost her her arms and legs. She battled back to become one of the world’s best wheelchair fencers, a sport that, if you haven’t seen, is remarkable to watch; I won’t say it is more difficult that traditional fencing, but it sure as hell isn’t any easier. I defy you to watch this movie and not fall a little bit in love with her.

All of these athletes are treated with the respect warranted by their elite performance. We watch as they perform staggering feats of athleticism – feats that are no less impressive for being executed by those with disabilities.

In addition, we meet some of the organizers of the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, learning about the triumphs and tribulations that went along with making those events happen. From the highs of the 2012 London event to the early struggles in Rio in 2016, the people charged with bringing the Paralympics to life are as passionate and driven as the athletes who compete there. Oh, and maybe the most famous face of the bunch falls into this category – Prince Harry, a noted disability advocate and founder of the Invictus Games, turns up to share his passion and celebrate these athletes.

“Rising Phoenix” also delves into the history of the Paralympic Games. The founder of the Games was Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a physician who fled Nazi Germany and wound up specializing in the treatment of soldiers with spinal injuries. That experience led to the (correct) belief that sport would greatly enhance the rehabilitation of those injuries. All of which led to the establishment of the first Paralympic Games, coinciding with the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

(Among the many things I myself learned, the “Para” in Paralympics stands for “Parallel.” I had always assumed – and I’m betting I’m not alone – that it stood for “Paralyzed.” An unfair assumption, to be sure, but one I had unthinkingly made.)

You might think that a film like this would tend toward saccharine sentimentality. And make no mistake – you are going to feel some feelings when you watch this film. But rather than making that sort of emotionality the driving force of the film, “Rising Phoenix” instead leans into the sporting prowess and determination that drives these talented athletes in both success and failure. We see them reach the pinnacle and occasionally fall short, just like every other elite athlete out there in the world. We bear witness to the raw power of Batt or the sheer speed of Peacock, the pure grace of Cole or the nimble dexterity of Vio – all of it evocative and impressive as hell.

“Rising Phoenix” was intended to launch in tandem with this year’s Paralympic Games, but it has no problem standing on its own. It is a beautifully-crafted and powerful documentary, one that celebrates its subjects with the pure joy of sport. These people don’t need labeling or qualification. They are athletes, full stop.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 31 August 2020 15:47

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