The new Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, reflects on the history and impact of the Paralympic Games while telling the stories of several of its elite athletes. The first lines of the documentary draw a parallel between Marvel’s Avengers and Paralympians. Like comic book superheroes, each of the featured competitors has an origin story; a tale of facing obstacles, beating the odds, and unlocking great strength. As an introductory voiceover puts it, “The Olympics are where heroes are created. The Paralympics are where heroes come.”
Each athlete’s “origin story” is unique. Australian swimmer Ellie Cole lost part of her leg to cancer at age three. American archer Matt Stutzman was born without arms and learned to shoot arrows with his feet. French runner Jean-Baptiste Alaize lost a leg at three years old in the Burundian Civil War, to name a few. Each discovered their power as they learned to not only navigate but thrive in a world designed for the able-bodied.
While these stories are critical to understanding the challenges individuals with disabilities face, the documentary does not position its subjects as victims but as conquerors. It artfully balances their trials with their triumphs, and their skill is on full display. Bonhôte and Ettedgui subvert social perceptions by creating a film more about ability than disability. Lest you think Paralympians are great “for people with impairments,” Rising Phoenix makes sure you understand early on that Paralympians are champions. Period.
This narrative is supported by beautiful cinematography from Will Pugh. The photography and editing challenge how we typically view and depict individuals with physical disabilities; the camera doesn’t gawk at these bodies but instead marvels at them, celebrating them for their might and skill. A sequence with wheelchair fencing champion Beatrice “Bebe” Vio feels more like a music video. Bebe is sexy, powerful, even stylish. She wears red lipstick and an infectious smile as she describes the parallels between beating meningitis and beating her opponents on the piste.
“You can’t be scared in order to win,” she says. “And I love winning.” Another scene, in which English sprinter Jonnie Peacock breaks the 100-meter world record, is pure, chill-inducing gold thanks to a thrilling score composed by Daniel Pemberton (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Birds of Prey) and performed by musicians from the British Paraorchestra. People with disabilities are often overlooked; Bonhôte says, “We wanted to make something where people wouldn’t look away.”
In order to fully appreciate the Paralympic Games as they are now, the documentary departs from the present day to explore the history of the Games, taking us back to Nazi Germany. Sir Ludwig Guttman, founder of the Paralympics, was a Jewish doctor. He fled Germany for England where he began specializing in the treatment of spinal injuries. There he began using sports to rehabilitate paralyzed war veterans, eventually organizing a multi-sport competition for patients. While the heroes of Rising Phoenix are undoubtedly the athletes, Sir Ludwig’s story is an inspiring piece of the puzzle. The story of a Jewish refugee founding a global event celebrating marginalized people feels both radical and necessary in 2020.
The documentary only loses momentum when it gets bogged down in a discussion of the logistics of the Games, particularly the financial shortcomings leading up to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. That year, organizers redirected funding for the Paralympics to the Olympics, and their discrimination nearly resulted in disaster. Perhaps this part falls flat because we, as viewers, are so used to seeing inequality and discrimination like this. Too often, people with disabilities are portrayed on screen as victims, dismissed and deprived of dignity. These scenes in Rising Phoenix give context to the adversity these athletes have overcome, but the film is at its best when it celebrates them for their strength and fortitude.
When I first heard the premise of Rising Phoenix, I assumed this documentary was not for me. I don’t play any sports. I’m able-bodied. But Rising Phoenix is about more than games or physical ability, it’s about humanity. Athlete or no, we all fall, and we all must learn to get back up again. Perhaps that’s why we cheer for our favorite team; we love to see the human spirit overcome against all odds. It gives us hope we might do the same in our own lives, off the field. Nowhere is that narrative, that hope, more powerful than the Paralympics. In the end, I was right. Rising Phoenix wasn’t made for me — but it is for everyone.