Mike Rowbottom

There’s a bit in Rising Phoenix - the film about the Paralympic Movement which Netflix is releasing on Wednesday (August 26) - that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons doesn’t like. It’s the bit with him in it.

"My least favourite part is the part when I’m in the video," he told me when we spoke last week. "Because I hate to see myself in the video. But it’s not that I don’t like what I am saying…"

The film details the history of the Paralympic Movement from its inception in 1948 at the instigation of German doctor Ludwig Guttmann while working at Stoke Mandeville’s spinal injuries centre to its triumphs at London 2012 and its trials and tribulations and triumphs at Rio 2016.

Forming an essential part of this narrative are nine inspirational Paralympians telling their own, moving stories, including Italy’s two-time world champion wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio, whose nickname gives the project its title.

Clips from the film, and last week’s release of the title track, have been received with widespread excitement.

Parsons himself tweeted: "The best film you will watch this year, or maybe during your entire life. It will blow your mind!!"

Warming to his theme, Parsons added: "Whoever watches this movie will understand not only what the Paralympic Movement stands for, but they will have a different view or a different attitude to persons with disability.

"Because it is impossible that you watch this movie and stay the same. It is impossible. You will be positively affected by the messaging, by the experience of all those athletes, by the Paralympic Movement itself.

"So we believe it will be a game-changer for the Paralympic Movement, and also when it comes to the disability awareness out there.

"I think it is something where people will say ‘Look, you need to watch this movie, it’s fantastic, and people will go this way, and in months, and years - because it is on a platform and the movie will stay there - we will have millions of people hopefully affected by it. That’s how excited we are.

"I have been involved with the Paralympic Movement for 23 years, and it makes tangible why I am doing what I have been doing for that time.

"The athletes’ stories are super-powerful. But also there is Guttman - he is our Pierre De Coubertin, he is the founder of our Movement. With some of the issues we face now - and we have already said we want to play a major role in human rights, we want to use sport to really change society in some specific areas, when we have our breath taken - we are going back to where we started.

"So we are aligning with the vision of Dr Guttman. And this is just fantastic."

Barnaby Spurrier, one of the film’s executive producers, shares Parsons’ sense of growing excitement about this project.

"The press around the world following the trailer has been amazing," said Spurrier, who has previous experience within the Olympic domain, having made the London 2012 mascot films and a series of films to promote those Games during the build-up.

"It’s really blown us away.

"We released the song last week - and that’s been on Radio 4, Radio 3, Radio 2, and Radio 1. There was a short piece in The Observer,  not a full review because of the embargo to August 26, which said this was an amazing film and not to be missed. The Daily Mirror have given it four stars…and it's on the front of today's Big Issue.

"We set up this WhatsApp group with all the National Paralympic Committees (NPCs). We invited them to monitor the trailer and share their views on the project. Within the first 24 hours we had something like 300 WhatsApp messages from around the world.

"Just now the head of the NPC in Ghana has just said hello, saying they’ve just seen the trailer, this is amazing, and a great moment for the IPC.

"Netflix are throwing all their weight behind it. They are doing more subtitle versions in different languages than they have ever done with any documentary before.

"They tend to do Spanish, French and English, but in this instance they are doing more.

"So it feels like it’s going to be fairly massive. The initial responses have been everything I hoped for."

According to Netflix: "The film will be subtitled in 30 languages and Audio Described in 10 languages. There will also be Closed Captions / Subtitles for D/deaf in 31 languages and Dubs in 9 languages.

"Additionally, Netflix will produce a descriptive transcript in English for viewers who are deafblind. The descriptive transcript provides both visual and audio information to be read via a Braille device."

During the film’s virtual launch earlier this month, co-producer Greg Nugent explained how traditional sources of funding had not been forthcoming for this project, obliging those behind it to think outside the box.

"I think the investors are quietly very, very pleased," Spurrier added. "They invested not to make money but because they believed in the film, but they are all, to a person, utterly delighted with the outcome. Partly financially, and partly because of their wishes for the film.

"I made a teaser for this with Greg to help raise money in June 2018. And we took it to some investors in July, August and September, and we started production the following February. It was all amazingly fast."

So was this effectively a high-grade crowdfunding operation?

"No, It wasn’t lots of 50 quids," Spurrier responded. "There are round about a dozen investors. 

"They all invested money that they could afford and they came aboard primarily because they loved the project.

"This is my first encounter with Netflix, and they have been amazing, their PR machine too. 

"And we would not have got far also without the help of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. They held focus groups to analyse the quality of the audio descriptions and make sure they were gold standard. But we had already built that relationship with them from the start. I went to them and said, ‘We are making a film, we want to make sure it is as successful as possible.’"

Spurrier also mentions the close working relationship there has been since day one with both Parsons and Craig Spence, the IPC's chief brand and communications officer.

"The other thing we did from day one was work really closely with Craig and Andrew," he said. "They were involved from the very beginning. Craig particularly was just amazing, holding our hand through the whole project. We’d be asking him questions like: 'Are we OK with that? Are we allowed to say that? Is that true? Is that actually what happened?'

"I also think the previous IPC President, Philip Craven, is one of the stars of the film. He’s got such a kind of, not anger, but a passion for what he is talking about, and it really comes over in the film.

"One other thing that happened was that in the course of making the film we all fell in love with the IPC. We all started by thinking 'We are going to make a film, it’s going to be a documentary, it’s going to be interesting project, and we’re sure we’ll find some great stories.' And Craig said: 'You will get consumed by the ethos and the passion of the IPC.'

"And he was dead right. Two months in we were all converted."