How Rising Phoenix captures ’emotional roller coaster’ of the Paralympic Games

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One thought-provoking and enlightening documentary has made its way onto Netflix.

Rising Phoenix not only charts the epic journey of the Paralympic Games, but it also examines the ways in which all of us examine the issues surrounding disability, diversity and human potential.

Speaking to Mirror Online, co-directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui revealed they were approached by producers Greg Nugent and John Battsek to be involved in making a film on the subject, but it wasn't the first the pair had been intrigued by the story of a Paralympian.

Interestingly, a connection between Rising Phoenix and their previous film emerged during the making of acclaimed biographical documentary McQueen.

Rising Phoenix tells the story of the Paralympic Games
(Image: Netflix)

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"We had this funny little contact with the Paralympics while working on McQueen because McQueen actually had a Paralympian Aimee Mullins open one of his shows," said Peter.

"We thought that is such an interesting story, as the fashion world threw its hands up in horror, saying 'he’s exploiting disabled people now', but he said he said 'No, I’m creating opportunities.'"

The pair explained too what it was that drew them to the story of the Paralympics following their work on telling the tragic story of Alexander McQueen.

Aimee Mullins in the SS99 show for Alexander McQueen in 1998
(Image: PA)

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Peter explained: "There were a number of reasons, but least of all that it was an incredibly uplifting story by comparison to McQueen.

"It wasn't just a change in subject but it was a whole change of tone.

"With McQueen, it’s quite dark and nihilistic; you’re dealing with trauma and suicide, that’s stitched into the heart of the film.

"Whereas with this, you’re dealing with something that is this tiny idea that started on the back lawn of a spinal injury hospital during the Second World War and grew to become the third biggest sporting event in the world."

The second reason that the pair cite is the desire to share the story of the games' architect: Dr. Ludwig Guttman.

Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, spinal injury expert from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, opens a swimming pool at Ponds Home For Spastics at Seer Green, Buckinghamshire. 20th April 1963
(Image: Mirrorpix)

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A Jewish doctor, Dr. Guttann's heroic efforts saving lives in Nazi Germany before his work founding the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital following his escape to the UK, followed by his further work towards spearheading opportunities in physical activity for disabled people make him a figure ripe for study in film.

"I think this is one of the most extraordinary human rights movements ever created," concludes Peter about Dr. Guttman's impact.

"It is absolutely at the forefront of global disability rights and has also produced a major showpiece event that is now loved the world over in the Paralympics. It is an amazing thing that he achieved in his life."

In fact, the life story of Dr. Guttman in the run up to and during the Second World War was also something so few knew about.

Ludwig Guttmann with Stoke Mandeville International Games competitor Karen Hill
(Image: Mirrorpix)

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Peter said: "We thought 'How can we bring him alive?'"

The story of Dr. Guttman saving the lives of 60 patients who came to his hospital to seek refuge from Kristallnacht (or the Night of Broken Glass) – which saw a horrific attack on the Jewish community of Germany – and the story of his and his family's own escape from Germany was something they thought had to be told – but whilst avoiding the feel of a "stuffy" historical documentary.

Thankfully, one artifact they could use was a "golden nugget" to help bring that story to life.

"[Dr. Guttmann] told this story on this precious audio archive in this interview that he gave to the Imperial War Museum and it’s there in the first person and it’s like it’s happening in front of you," describes a gleeful Peter.

Paralympic athlete Bebe Vio in Rising Phoenix
(Image: Netflix)

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In addition to the change in tone of filmmaking for them both and also the inspiring tale of Dr. Guttmann and the movement he spearheaded, there was also all the drama that the Paralympic Games evoke.

Comparing it to al sports, Ian explains: "It brings up so many emotions, you've got heroes, you've got villains, the drama that we as filmmakers inject into movies."

RISING PHOENIX – Athlete Jonnie Peacock in the Netflix Original Documentary Film Rising Phoenix. Cr. Matt Horan/NETFLIX © 2020
(Image: Matt Horan/NETFLIX)

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This drama is brought to life by the appearances from 'superhuman' athletes such including Matt Stutzman,  Jonnie Peacock, Ntando Mahlangu and Tatyana McFadden, but how did the pair pick who to star in the film?

"We were always keen on trying to present the world, to find them from across the gender spectrum and from different disabilities," reveals Ian.

As they delved into each of their personal stories, it helped them to organically shape their film along the way.

Athlete and producer Tatyana McFadden in Rising Phoenix
(Image: Netflix)

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"With this, it just seemed like it could have that scale and size and uplift, we wanted to make it entertaining," notes Peter.

"We didn't want to do a pity clap or something that was 'worthy', we wanted something to take you on an emotional roller coaster."

Rising Phoenix is available now on Netflix.

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