David Knight - 25th Feb 2021

Having won acclaim with McQueen, their documentary about the iconoclastic fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui's follow-up project is Rising Phoenix, a wide-ranging and powerfully emotive history of the Paralympics, now screening on Netflix. 

Rising Phoenix charts how the Paralympics - founded in London after the Second World War - sparked a global movement which continues to change the way the world thinks about disability, diversity and human potential. The film also features the personal stories of several athletes who have competed at recent Paralympic Games.  

With an original soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton, the directors have now assembled a lyric video for the track Pemberton created with the Krip Hop Nation - a group of rappers who all have disabilities - which features in the documentary, over the end titles. Using footage from the movie, the lyric video was put together using footage from the movie, with titles and additional material created by Trunk Animation.

We spoke to Ian Bonhôte about Rising Phoenix and the video. Firstly asking him about how he and Ettedgui came to choose this project as their follow-up to McQueen.

Above: Australian swimming Paralympian Ellie Cole, featured in 'Rising Phoenix'

Why did you choose Rising Phoenix as your follow-up to McQueen? 

Ian Bonhôte: Peter and I wanted to do something as far away from fashion as possible. You know the usual stereotyping… Everyone came to us about fashion projects and biopics, even in fiction. It is not that we are against it but wanted to stretch our narrative and visual muscles in a different direction.

So John Batseck (producer of Searching for Sugarman, One Day In September, The Imposter) contacted us about a project on the Paralympic Movement. The project was very ambitious. John and fellow producer Greg Nugent who had worked as marketing director of London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics wanted to make a definitive film about this amazing story and furthermore tackle the issue of civil rights for anyone living or being born with a disability.

They sent us a small teaser and we fell in love with the moment, with the origin story of a Jewish German refugee Doctor Ludwig Guttman (Sir in his later years) surviving and escaping the Nazi regime to be given a second chance in Britain and literally through a special rehabilitation treatment transforming the lives of many people with spinal cord injuries (many soldiers during WW2 would be left to die if they had spinal cord injuries).

We wanted to introduce our hero Paralympians and their personal stories as well as tell the story of the movement.

Then we looked at some athletes stories and their achievements, and that was it. We were not going to let go of this story. It is so unknown and one of the greatest British and Human kind success. The Olympics and its achievement is ridiculously shallow in comparison to the Paralympics and its impact on our society, and still most people don’t know.

On the face of it, McQueen and Rising Phoenix seem very different projects. Were there any similarities?

IB: You're right, they are polar opposite in terms of the narrative. McQueen is about one man and his creative output; Rising Phoenix is about a movement that's been going since 1948, with thousands of potential lead characters. So it was a massive challenge in terms of how to structure the narrative and the emotional points. Though, every time we talked to someone we were either in tears or laughing or angry. And I believe in emotions above all else. As filmmakers it is our duty to make the audience feel, whatever - fear, pleasure, laughs... and in this case everything was about emotion.

But the similarities I think was in our aesthetical approach and our respect/love for our subjects. Once again we worked with Time Based Arts to create, photorealistic visuals. It's fascinating to look back through Art history and to realise that no subject with a disability were ever painted or sculpted properly. If you had someone missing a leg or arm or any sort of disability, the person would be a beggar. Anyone who knows me won't be surprised that I got obsessed and way too angry about it. So with Mike and the Team we decided to change that forever.

Above: US archery Paralympian Matt Stutzman, featured in 'Rising Phoenix'

We decided to create our own celebratory statues of the Paralympians and show off our amazing athletes at the peak of their abilities! Nothing better than turning the wrongs into rights. I am just so excited by how this period of time right now in human history is finally putting Women, Black, Asians, Disables, Small, Big, Gay, Lesbian or anyone in between at the forefront of Visual representation. By doing so we are completely changing the world forever and it gets me high, cause it comes from all over and won’t be stopped ever.

Sorry, always gets me pumped to see the world change despite the mainstream media and journalism always trying to scare us but so many amazing people and battles are being fought. It is fucking inspiring and for me Rising Phoenix was my own little battle!

One thing that jumped out was this constant struggle of the Paralympic movement - always 'One Good Game/One Bad Game'

What was the biggest challenges of telling the story of the Paralympics since its foundation in 1948? 

IB: To keep the emotional through-line! It is really easy to fall into creating an information piece about all the events and amazing people which are or have been part of the movement. But we always wanted to make a cinematic experience for the audience though the timespan is so big as well as the number of characters.

But one thing that jumped at us was this constant struggle of the Paralympic movement. It is always 'One Good Game/One Bad Game'. So, for example, Barcelona in 1992 was a success; then Atlanta in 1996 was a disaster - no audiences, they were dismantling the event as the Paralympians were competing because they care so little about Para sports. We knew the London 2012 had been the greatest game ever organised and then Rio 2016, the Rio Committee was stealing money and almost canceled the games! Then we decided to concentrate our contemporary story on those two events and create a sort of “race against time” from three of our protagonists - leaders of the movement at the time - to save the games in Rio.

Above: Australian rugby Paralympian Riley Batt, featured in 'Rising Phoenix'

With this present day structure we then wanted to introduce our hero Paralympians and their personal stories as well as the origin story of the movement in flashbacks and flash forwards. We used themes or countries or time periods or games themselves to create segways into the athletes' personal stories, or to jump forward or backward. It was a bit of a mind fuck but we always kept it very emotional. So in the end we feel the audience is on one single journey, despite having absorbed so much details.

Focussing on the stories of selected athletes, as well as the history of the Paralympics, gave you visible Heroes who you capture in some great action sequences. Who are the athletes featured in the film, and the lyric video?

IB: We had a cast of nine athletes we focused on: Bebe Vio (Italy/wheelchair fencing), Jean-Baptiste Alaize (French/long jump), Tatyana Macfadden (USA/wheelchair racing), Ellie Cole (Australia/swimmer), Chui Zhen (China/weightlifting), Ryley Batt (Australia/wheelchair rugby), Ntando Malangu (South Africa/runner), Jonnie Peacock (UK/runner) and Matt Stutzman (USA/archer).

Our cast of Heroes allowed us to harness visually their amazing achievements but as well to delve emotionally into their personal stories. We uncover tragedies as well as humourous moments. It was essential for us to create a face to the movement and not just talk metaphorically of how the movement changes lives on the sporting stage but in the stand as well.

Daniel wanted to create an anthem which echoed the soundtrack, but in terms of the message was true to the film. 

The action sequences are counterpointed with sculptures of the athletes. Who made the sculptures, and what are their significance in the film?  

IB: Sorry I already went on earlier about the amazing Time Based Arts team - Mike, James, Simone, Tom, Stephen and everyone else there. They are just so good and passionate; I love them. We have known each other for so long now.

Regarding the meaning, it truly comes from this angry place inside when you see something wrong and you obsess and you want to scream super loud to the society about looking around and not to ignore our people, whatever they look like or whatever you think they are able to achieve. This film taught me to keep on ignoring everything I think I know and keep my eyes and mind open.

Above: French long jump Paralympian Jean-Baptiste Alaize, featured in 'Rising Phoenix'

Music was important in McQueen and again on Rising Phoenix - but this time with an original soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton. When did he come on board and what kind of brief did you give him for the project? 

IB: Daniel never really came on board; he just could not get rid of us! We approached him really early on and he was mad busy on Birds Of Prey and The Trial of the Chicago 7. And then every other day there are these two muppets at his doorstep begging him to do the soundtrack on their small little documentary, while he was taking phone calls from Spielberg and Sorkin. So he took pity! No, I think we showed him five minutes of different sequences and he loved our non-apologetical approach and a little Fuck You attitude. 

By the way all his soundtracks this year are shortlisted or longlisted for the Oscars, Baftas, Golden Globes… He is nominated for Composer of the Year! He is truly an amazingly talented and such a nice person. We knew each other from our club days in the late 90s. Daniel was DJing at some nights where I was projecting my visuals when I first moved to London, scraping a living in the club scenes from the Blue Note to the 333 in Hoxton. He was part of the magazine Shoreditch Twat, which gave the name to the lovely people moving to Shoreditch at the time… Me included, by the way.

This film taught me to keep on ignoring everything I think I know and keep my eyes and mind open.

His collaboration with the members of Krip Hop Crew provides the music for the end titles of the film. How did that collaboration happen?

IB: The producers were throwing lots of famous artists names at us and we always felt it was the wrong approach. Daniel wanted to create an anthem which musically echoed the full soundtrack but in terms of the message was true to the film. 

In our research we came across the Krip Hop Nation crew, which is made of lots of different artist all around the US living with a disability. So with Daniel we approached them, to collaborate. They said 'yes' right away. So Toni Hickman, Keith Jones and George Doman worked closely with Daniel who would compose the track as they were writing the lyrics. It was a lot of back and forth and tweaking but I know Daniel is super proud, us too!

Daniel actually rerecorded a lot of the instruments in the soundtrack with live musicians and most of them with a disability. It was an essential part of the film. We had over 16% of all crew members and team in the office with a disability which is a higher percentage of the section of the world's’ population living with a disability: 15%!

Above: US wheelchair racing Paralympian Tatyana MacFadden; and below: Italian wheelchair fencing Paralympian Bebe Vio

Was making a music video for the track with existing footage an easy decision? Did that give you a chance to rework and edit the ‘hero’ footage in a new way?

IB: It was the only solution as when you make a feature film, you need to keep in consideration all the right holders/distributors. We needed a sort of teaser piece though strong enough to do justice to the track as well as whet the appetite of a potential audience. Trunk Animation did most of the work as we were still in the midst of the film and its release. They did a fantastic job. It is classy as well as impactful. I love the video.

How does the music video showcase the film and underline the theme and values of the film?

IB: Basically working with Krip Hop Nation, was the perfect match. As each of the artists have a lot to say about overcoming injustice, prejudice and fighting to be accepted and recognised for their work. It echoed perfectly some of our athletes' personal journeys. Furthermore, the texture of their voices is slightly altered or heavily changed due to their disability BUT it just makes it even stronger. Hip Hop is about finding the flow/the delivery. So each of them - Toni, George and Keith - are so unique. It is special.

It's depressing to think that in the 21st century we still face racism, gender inequality, homophobia and more. But facing the worst is anyone living with a disability. Many countries do not acknowledge their community. They don’t exist and are left to fend for themselves in many cases ending up in precarious situations. So for me, making a film about Para Sport, and being able to draw in many other themes and issues, such as exclusion, racism, apathy, discrimination, in a subtle but hard and longlasting way was essential. The track embodies it perfectly.

Rising Phoenix is a Netflix Original Documentary, screening now


DirectorIan Bonhôte
DirectorPeter Ettedgui
AnimationTrunk Animation
VFX CompanyTime Based Arts
Production CompanyMisfits Entertainment
Director of PhotographyWill Pugh
Other creditsProducers: Greg Nugent, John Battsek, Tatyana McFadden

David Knight - 25th Feb 2021

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