Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Tatyana McFadden is among the athletes featured in Rising Phoenix, a documentary about the Paralympic Movement that will be released by Netflix on August 26. In the film, we see her being introduced on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

"You have won 17 Paralympic medals including seven golds," the host announces. "You hold the world record in every track event; 100 metres, 400 metres, 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres. You are the first person ever to win all four of the world’s major marathons in one year. And you have done that three years in a row."

Applause. And the film switches to another world, where McFadden - one of three producers on this ground-breaking project - narrates her story over footage of a bright-eyed little girl with both legs bent uselessly behind her.

"I was born in St Petersburg, Russia…

"Being born with a disability in Russia in the 80s… it was a struggle… my birth mum could not take care of me financially. I was sent to Orphanage Number 13. There is no fancy name. It’s just Orphanage Number 13.

"It was just like a simple life. I didn’t have a wheelchair. The only way to get around was I scooted round the floor using my hands as my legs. I was a rebel there. I was a very stubborn child. I was never adopted until about the sixth year when my Mum walked in…

"I owe her my life. Before I knew it I was on a plane to America... so I didn’t know the outside world… my Mum said I was screaming because it was really unknown… I was leaving something I had known for so long… and then, entering a new world that I didn’t know or speak the language…"

We see some home footage as Tatyana responds to her adoptive mother, Deborah McFadden - who had seen her while visiting Russia as a commissioner of disabilities for the United States Health Department, and taken her back to the Baltimore home she shared with partner, Bridget O’Shaughnessy.

"He-llo!" says the child.

"How old are you?"

“Six years old!”

Multiple Paralympic wheelchair racing champion Tatyana McFadden of the United States is one of three producers of Rising Phoenix, the documentary out on Netflix on August 26 ©Netflix
Multiple Paralympic wheelchair racing champion Tatyana McFadden of the United States is one of three producers of Rising Phoenix, the documentary out on Netflix on August 26 ©Netflix

McFadden’s narrative resumes. "Coming to the US my legs were actually hanging back so I think I had like 10 surgeries to actually straighten out my legs… the doctors... they didn’t really expect a life for me. I wouldn’t live very long… that I wouldn’t hold a job…

"They thought very narrow. I think the moment I sat in that racing chair I just, I don’t know, I knew it was for me. It was something that I had never felt before.

"Freedom, and that I could go really fast. I was so in the zone I didn’t really care about anything else, nothing was wrong in the world… it just felt endless, you know, you could just go, forever…"

Throughout this section there are dream-like sequences of arrival in a new world - the everyday extraordinary as seen by BAFTA-nominated joint directors and writers Peter Ettedgui and Ian Bonhôte. For a while the world is viewed upside down. The camera then zooms down to an urban street pattern as if a visiting alien.

In the background, magical, ambient music scored by Daniel Pemberton, nominated for the World Soundtrack Awards' "Film Composer of the Year" title in 2016. For a moment, it feels a bit like American Beauty

At the film’s virtual launch this week, Greg Nugent - one of three producers along with McFadden and John Battsek - was asked whether the portrayal of disabled people can create pressure to become "extraordinary" or to overcome their impairment in order to become more acceptable to non-disabled people. What would he say to someone who might say the Paralympics, and possibly even this film, perpetuates that?

"I think it’s a really important question," said Nugent, who was director of brand, marketing and culture at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and created the "Fill The Seats" campaign which helped save the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio from being called off.

"I’ve worked in this space for a long time, and I’ve seen this get raised a lot through the years. And it was something we really did think a lot about with London 2012.

"My answer is I think that the Paralympics are perhaps the most powerful thing that can help us understand about ability rather than disability, and certainly to change our minds. There are actually very few things in the world more effective than the Paralympics to change our minds.

"But I think the origin of that question is essentially about the balance in storytelling. I think what happened with London 2012 is we hired Channel 4 to do the broadcasting and we asked the BBC not to do it, which was fairly sensational.

"But what Channel 4 brought to it was a re-set. And they did very brave things, they built a new model. And I think they made it acceptable and progressive and interesting for broadcasters and content-makers to use and work with disabled people.

"I think what has happened in the UK - and it’s not happened in other countries - over the last decade is that there has been a revolution in terms of people who are disabled being asked to be part of things.

"And I think the eye of that revolution is advertising. Where there is a challenge, it’s the portrayal of someone with disability in advertising. And the problem with advertising is there’s 30 seconds, or 60 seconds, and what I don’t think the advertisers are doing - they are not trying to tell the whole story, they are trying to tell you about the heroic nature of an incredible Paralympian.

"And so I think that is where I would place the challenge. Outside of that, what we set out to do - John, myself, Tatyana - what Peter and Ian set out to do - and they used to use this phrase all the time, was to tell the whole story and not half of it.

"So we make absolutely no apologies for the incredible creative production standards that Peter and Ian have put into the visual side of the film. And by the way, every day of the week an Olympian is shot to that standard, so why wouldn’t a Paralympian be?"

Among the other Paralympians undergoing the top treatment in a film that will be released in more than 190 countries is Italy’s two-time world champion wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio, whose nickname gives the project its title.

Britain’s two-time Paralympic 100m champion Jonnie Peacock is also included, as is Australian swimmer Ellie Cole, French athlete Jean-Baptiste Alaize, American archer Matt Stutzman, Chinese powerlifter Cui Zhe, Australian wheelchair rugby player Ryley Batt and South African athlete Ntando Mahlangu.

The release of the film - produced by HTYT Films and Passion Pictures in association with Ventureland and Misfits Entertainment - was planned to coincide with the Tokyo 2020 Games until they were postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film's executive producers are Barbara Broccoli, producer of the James Bond films, Richard Curtis, whose film credits as a writer and director include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually, and HTYT’s Barnaby Spurrier, Godric Smith and Dee Ryder.

Italy's Paralympic and world wheelchair fencing champion Bebe Vio is among the athletes featured in Rising Phoenix ©Netflix
Italy's Paralympic and world wheelchair fencing champion Bebe Vio is among the athletes featured in Rising Phoenix ©Netflix

It will now become a part of the celebrations marking a year to go until the Tokyo Paralympics, which are due to begin on August 25 2021.

"It’s a quite amazing journey working on this film after Greg asked me to be one of the producers," said McFadden. "For me sport was almost a saving grace."

Nugent recalled early discussions with Battsek about recruitment for the enterprise.

"John came in and said 'We’ve got to cherish this story, this is a very big story and it can’t be done in a way that means we don’t live up to its potential and transform this entire project.'

"And we then sat down and worked out who we also wanted to be a producer and we asked Tatyana. And we obviously knew that that was like, impossible, as Tatyana was training every day, but Tatyana and Deborah, we met them and they just understood it straight away."

Disabled people were central to the making of this film. "The first thing was that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had high expectation of what we needed to do for this to work," Nugent recalled. "And there was also a very important piece of copy which is 'Nothing about us without us'.

"And there is a history of films being made about disability with no consultation or representation by people with disability.

"The first thing we did was on the core team - we did what we wanted in 2012 - question one was 'What jobs have we got going and how do we make them available to people with disability that can help us with the story?'"

Nugent paid tribute to the assistance given by others within the Paralympic Movement such as Britain’s Tanni Grey-Thompson, the 11-time Paralympic wheelchair racing champion who now sits in the House of Lords.

"We had an incredible network of people we could phone," he said

"I will never forget Tanni Grey-Thompson - we once agreed to meet on the tube, because she didn’t have much time that day but I needed help. And I met her on the platform of a tube station to check that we were doing something in the right way!”

Britain's 11-time Paralympic wheelchair racing champion Tanni Grey-Thompson, who now sits in the House of Lords, was among those who contributed to the making of Rising Phoenix ©Getty Images
Britain's 11-time Paralympic wheelchair racing champion Tanni Grey-Thompson, who now sits in the House of Lords, was among those who contributed to the making of Rising Phoenix ©Getty Images

Nugent went on to explain how the project had taken shape in his head over a number of years.

"I was technically in charge of the story of London 2012 and the hardest bit of that was the Paralympic story," he said. "There were lots and lots of manuals for the Olympics. There was almost a book for every day, but there were very few manuals for the Paralympics.

"And so it was much more about our discretion. There was no single manual. So I bought all the books, a lot of them were second-hand, they weren’t even in publication. And I pieced together the story and I just couldn’t believe it.

"I thought 'What an extraordinary story.' And it struck me that if this wasn’t about disability this would have been made in Hollywood a long time ago.

"And the idea festered in my head for a long time, and I originally went to the IPC about it in 2013. I had the idea about 2010. But when Rio happened it struck me not only that it was a good story and that we should tell this story, but that there was a necessity to.

"Because it struck me that the Brazilians thought it was a choice. That the Paralympics wasn’t as important as the Olympics. And actually if you know the Paralympics you will realise that there are few more important things in the world in terms of changing our attitudes.

"So I felt that that was the right time. I felt that we should never have another Rio, and I thought one of the things that we could do was to make the story accessible to so many people that it would never be a choice again."

Nugent then referenced Dr Martin Luther King, whose pioneering activism in the field of racial equality is so widely acknowledged, and Dr Ludwig Guttmann, the German-born British neurologist who effectively established the Paralympics when he put on the Stoke Mandeville Games - at the National Spinal Injuries Centre - to coincide with the opening of the 1948 London Olympics.

"I always thought, rightly, we all understand Dr King’s version of the world, but we don’t understand Dr Guttmann’s view of the world, and we should try and put that into a film.

"The other thing about why now is that it is so easy now to connect to a story. You used to have to wait for 20-odd weeks to reach the cinema. And now it can be on your phone and in your life very quickly.

"And so I think the empathy of the world has changed. And whereas stories like this maybe 10 years [ago] might have felt impossible, they are now completely possible. And so you add all of that together and I think it was the time in 2017 to begin the journey."

Turning his vision into reality, however, proved hugely challenging.

"The industry kept telling me not to try and make this film," he recalled. "And I kept trying to go to traditional sources of funding to make it, and I kept getting hit with a barrier, which was 'We don’t do disability in entertainment.'

"It was practically impossible to find funding. It became so impossible that we decided to fund it ourselves by turning to people that trusted us, that wanted to be part of a project like this.

"They were true visionaries, because this was a long shot. But they could understand why the story needed to be told. So in the end we had to go very, very private and micro-financed to get it to be made."

Among the early recommendations Rising Phoenix has enjoyed is one from the President of the IPC, Andrew Parsons, who has tweeted: "The best film you will watch this year, or maybe during your entire life. It will blow your mind!!" 

Nugent concluded: "There is a raw story here for so many of our athletes. So listen to Tatyana when she says her world was upside down. And when Bebe talks about impossibility, or when Ryley talks about the difficulty of acceptance, and his depression.

"Just listen to all of the athletes - they will all tell you a story you have never heard before. And that’s what I think Peter and Ian meant by the whole story. I think we have told both sides of it - we haven’t just focused on extraordinary skills, we have focused on their extraordinary stories."