Documentary Review: Paralympians as Badasses, “Rising Phoenix”

A teenage fencer survived meningitis, which scarred her face and took her arms and legs.

“How can you live without arms or legs?” she cackles, in Italian accented English. Her condition just merits a shrug and a teenaged “S— happens!”

A sprinter survived losing a leg to machete wielding fanatics in the Burundi Civil War, and saw his own mother butchered in front of him.

The archer holds the bow with his feet and draws the string with his teeth.

“This is how I am,” he chuckles. “Merry CHRISTMAS.”

A weightlifter may have no legs, and until Beijing had to host a Paralympics, was among the millions of invisible disabled in the People’s Republic. A wheelchair sprinter was born in the former Soviet Union, which also was reluctant to admit “We have disabled people here.” She came to fame as an American paralympian.

“Everybody has a story,” Xavier Gonzalez, a member of the International Paralympics Committee, says. And in the case of paralympians, that story is going to be touching and triumphant.

Because as the athletes in “Rising Phoenix” put it, they’re the real “superheroes” among us, people who have overcome physical limitations to physically excel, human beings who fight prejudice and dismissal every day, and who aren’t afraid to punch back.

There are athletes all across the spectrum of sport who would kill to have a documentary portray them as heroic, epic and badass as Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui paint the superstars in “Rising Phoenix.”

Ryley Blatt, Australian wheelchair rugby star, the “Blattering Ram” of the sport still called “Murderball,” is one. Ellie Cole, a single-legged swimmer from Oz is another.

“Everybody in Australia has to swim,” she shrugs. It’s just that for her, “I was swimming in a circle” with just one leg “for a while.”

The film is a cornucopia of stories like theirs, legions of athletes shaking off “disability” as a label, donning “cheetah blades” and running with them.

“Phoenix” covers the history of the Paralympics movement, from its German Jewish emigre founder and those first 16 “men injured in the war” (WWII) games in London, to assorted triumphs (London, 2012) and debacles (Atlanta, 96, and Moscow refused to host them during the tainted 1980 Olympics), to the Rio games, which had a little of both.

For a fairly generic sports documentary, “Rising Phoenix” still manages a few thrills, some moving moments and a lot of sports action — blind soccer, armless swimming or ping pong, wheelchair fencing and all manner of other games and races competed on wheels.

And to a one, the athletes get the “superhero” treatment, lit like Greek gods, photographed in stunning slo-motion, celebrated with musical fanfares and profiled in the most delightfully unfiltered and sometimes profane ways.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, brief violent images, some strong language, and for brief suggestive references

Cast: Ellie Cole, Matt Stutzman, Jean-Baptiste Alaize, Ntando Mahlandu, Andrew Parsons, Cui Zhe, Bebe Vio, Jonnie Peacock, Ryley Blatt, Tatyana McFadden, Xavier Gonzalez and The Duke of Sussex

Credits: Directed by Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:44

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