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Rising Phoenix: ‘The Olympics is where heroes are created. The Paralympics is where the heroes come’

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Former International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven’s description of the Games features in a new Netflix documentary film that has strong links to Cambridge.

Bebe Vio in the Neflix documentary film Rising Phoenix. Picture: Netflix
Bebe Vio in the Neflix documentary film Rising Phoenix. Picture: Netflix

“I want as many people in the world to see the Paralympics as possible because if my parents had known about the Paralympics back when I was three years old, they would have had so much more hope in what people with disabilities can do.”

Ellie Cole’s words offer inspiration about the power of sport.

The Australian had to have her leg amputated due to cancer, and started swimming as part of her rehabilitation programme – and never stopped.

Cole now has six gold medals, three silver and three bronze from the Paralympic Games in London and Rio, and is one of the stars of the documentary film Rising Phoenix, which was released on Netflix late last month.

It is storytelling at its best, focusing on nine athletes and their journeys in competition in a way in which Paralympians are so rarely featured.

There is a superb artistry to Rising Phoenix which takes viewers on such an array of emotions, it sweeps from uplifting to heart-wrenching, laughter to tears, brutal honesty and candour, but most importantly it is powerful, motivating and meaningful.

Cambridge sprinter Jonnie Peacock is one of the stars, along with athletes Tatyana McFadden and Ntando Mahlangu, archer Matt Stutzman, fencer Bebe Vio, long jumper Jean-Baptiste Alaize, powerlifter Cui Zhe, wheelchair rugby player Ryley Batt and Cole.

But an even greater connection is that the executive producer is Cambridge United director Godric Smith.

The documentary was made by HTYT Stories, of which Smith is co-founder with Greg Nugent, his business partner.

They worked together on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Nugent as director of marketing and Smith as director of communications, and were overawed by the Paralympics, so much so that Nugent had the idea to make a film about what he thought was “the greatest story that has never been told”, says Smith.

“There was so much about the history, the sport, and the personal stories of the athletes that would just make such an extraordinary film, that we ought to try to tell it.”

It was four years later, in 2016, that the idea came to the fore again, and that was brought about by the threat posed to the Paralympics in Brazil.

“After Rio, when the Paralympics nearly didn’t happen because the organizing committee ran out of money – and Rising Phoenix tells that story – for Greg the urgency came back that we almost need to tell the story now so it can never happen again,” explains Smith.

“We set up a new film company and approached the International Paralympic Committee and asked them if we could have the rights to tell their story, which they gave us.

“It was a real honour and a privilege that they did that.”

Ellie Cole in an advert for Rising Phoenix on Netflix. Picture: Netflix
Ellie Cole in an advert for Rising Phoenix on Netflix. Picture: Netflix

Funding the film became the next priority, with options including selling the idea to a distributor, funding it themselves and then selling it, and various models in between.

“The conversations we had made it pretty clear that this was going to be quite hard to find somebody to back us at the outset,” says Smith

“I think largely maybe because of the challenges around the subject matter, it’s seen as a bit leftfield.

“We set about finding investment ourselves which would then allow us to make the film, and then hopefully be in a position which we could then sell to a distributor or a company, such as Netflix.

“We were incredibly grateful for the investment which we received from a variety of different sources, but largely friends, contacts, people who shared our vision and could see the power of the story and why it was important it was told.”

With Nugent one of the producers, he co-opted John Battsek, an executive producer of the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man, and the production team was completed by McFadden, one of the most decorated US Paralympians.

Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui were recruited as directors, and they then set about comprehensive research to choose the athletes to feature and bring to life their creative vision.

“I think they have done an extraordinary job in how they have managed to weave together the history of the Games, the power of the sport, and the extraordinary story of the nine athletes who are featured within it,” says Smith.

“One of the skills of a good documentary is for the directors to let the people who are interviewing tell their stories in as powerful, authentic and candid way as they can – each one of them in their own way is extraordinary, powerful, moving and inspiring.

“I think particularly at a time when the world is going through a global pandemic and everyone in different ways is impacted by that – some a lot more than others – I think what the Paralympics spirit can teach us about resilience is important.

“I think that is something that comes through from the film.

“It’s really a film about ability, it’s about the power of the human spirit, it’s demonstrating what is possible, it is showing that sometimes the limits on us are those we place on ourselves.

“It was trying to show that also the Paralympians embody in many ways the purest form of sport, they are elite athletes at the height of their powers. It was trying to give a showcase to all those things through the film.”

Jean-Baptiste Alaize in the Netflix documentary film Rising Phoenix. Picture: Netflix
Jean-Baptiste Alaize in the Netflix documentary film Rising Phoenix. Picture: Netflix

Rising Phoenix has received glowing feedback and praise.

Among those to have taken to social media to commend it have been French president Emmanuel Macron, David Beckham, Billie-Jean King, US athletics superstar Michael Johnson, Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford and popstar Rita Ora.

It has struck a chord, with so many people endorsing it and talking of its empowering impact.

One of the most compelling narratives is the story of Dr Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic movement as a whole, told by his daughter Eva Loeffler.

“Hearing Eva talking about her father’s story is extraordinary,” says Smith. “It’s an extraordinary story that from tragedy comes something like this.”

There are other personal highlights for Smith, though that only comes from being prompted and put on the spot.

The story of Vio – from whose nickname the film is titled – is one, and another is the way in which Batt talks candidly about the mental health challenges he faced on the way to coming back for Paralympic gold in Rio.

But, says Smith: “Firstly, Jonnie Peacock winning at London. Working on London for several years, being there, it was an extraordinary moment.

“The way that story was told brought back so many fantastic memories of such a wonderful summer, and Jonnie is from Cambridge and has a strong connection to the football club.

“I think the way that then goes into the story of Dr Guttman, told by his daughter, is very special.”

There were countless others as well, in what really is a piece of art.

Tatyana McFadden in an advert for Rising Phoenix on Netflix. Picture: Netflix
Tatyana McFadden in an advert for Rising Phoenix on Netflix. Picture: Netflix

It was not just about the athletes either, the aim was to make an impact in so many different areas, both in front of and behind the camera.

“One of the things we’re particularly proud of is that for the film we prioritised having people with a disability working behind the camera as well,” says Smith.

“We’ve had 16 per cent of the working hours on the film being with people who have a disability. Their perspective, talent and commitment have really helped make this film what it is.

“There is still a long way to go for true representation but we were very clear at the outset that we wanted to raise the bar and that we had to be as we say, as it were.”

It even extends to the title track, which was written by Daniel Pemberton and performed by three American rappers who are part of Krip-Hop Nation – an international platform for hip-hop artists with disabilities – and they were George Doman, billed as George TraGiC, Toni Hickman and Keith Jones.

HTYT Stories have ambitions to make other film documentaries that can bring about positive change, and in the last week have appointed Lord Tony Hall, the former director general of the BBC, as chairman.

As a starting point though, Rising Phoenix has set the bar very high and fills an important void left by the absence of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics – it would have been the closing ceremony last weekend.

It is probably most fitting therefore to reflect on Eva Loeffler’s words from the documentary, recounting the London 2012 Games.

“Jonnie Peacock was running and there were 80,000 in the stadium, and they were not shouting and clapping and cheering because they were seeing disabled people,” she said, “they were shouting because they were seeing a great sporting event.

“That just brought it back to me what the Paralympics mean. My father did start something amazing and I’m very proud of him.”

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