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DOC TALK

Paralympic heroes; heavily invested; Andorran doings

Paralympic athlete Bebe Vio, in "Rising Phoenix."
Paralympic athlete Bebe Vio, in "Rising Phoenix."Netflix

“The Olympics are where heroes are created,” says a voiceover narrator at the beginning of Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s affecting and flashy documentary “Rising Phoenix.” “The Paralympics are where heroes come.” The film backs up that statement by presenting an illuminating history of the event — postponed this year, along with the Tokyo Olympics, because of COVID-19 — and the incredible stories of several of the athletes. Edited with verve and enhanced with dramatic effects and a compelling soundtrack, it brings to life a movement that has been growing since World War II.

That’s when Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany for refuge in England, took charge of a hospital for soldiers with spinal injuries. He included sports as part of the therapy for his patients and at his hospital organized the first Paralympics competition, in 1948. By 1960 the program had expanded and was officially established as the Paralympic Games, at the Rome Olympics. Since then it has experienced great success, including the 2012 London Olympics, where thousands of athletes from 100 countries participated; and some near disasters, such as in Rio, in 2016, when financial difficulties almost shut down the games.

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The stars of the film are the athletes themselves; they have survived tragic and sometimes horrific traumas and responded with astonishing courage and tenacity. To dramatize their unique achievements, the film likens them to movie superheroes and classical statues in elaborately produced sequences showcasing their power and beauty.

They include Jean-Baptiste Alaize, a member of the French team, who at 3 barely survived the Burundian Civil War. A mob armed with machetes maimed him so badly his leg was later amputated. Then he watched them butcher his mother. Adopted by a French family, he faced bullying, because of his race and disability. But he persevered in his dream to achieve athletic greatness.

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Now a competitor in Paralympic track and field events, he is shown straining to win the long jump in London in 2012, a sequence intercut with brief clips of archival footage of the Burundian bloodbath. “Why do I run and jump?” he asks in voiceover. “It’s as if I’m trying to escape what happened.”

Bebe Vio, a fencer from Italy, had already achieved success in her sport at 11, when she was stricken with meningitis. It led to an infection, and doctors had to amputate her arms and legs. But this did not stop her dream of becoming a champion. Few Olympic competitions have exceeded the astonishing athleticism and sheer emotional intensity demonstrated as she wins the gold medal for wheelchair fencing in Rio in 2016. It might leave you in tears.

“Rising Phoenix” can be seen on Netflix.

Go to www.netflix.com/title/81122408.

David Blech in "The Blech Effect."
David Blech in "The Blech Effect."Virgil Films

Blech and biotech

When we first see David Blech in David Greenwald’s claustrophobic and compelling “The Blech Effect” it is 2013 and he is pondering his upcoming sentencing hearing. “I don’t expect much leniency,” he says. “Even though the crimes were mostly against myself and my family.”

He is a two-time winner, and loser. Worth $300 million in the 1990s, he was such a success that the term “The Blech Effect” was coined to describe his uncanny ability to turn investments in biotech firms into fabulous profits. But he was a gambling addict suffering from bipolar disorder who didn’t know when to quit. In 1994 it all blew up in his face; nailed on charges of securities fraud and stock manipulation, he was lucky to escape with just five years' probation.

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Two decades later, as the film begins, he faces similar charges and has pled guilty, putting himself at the court’s mercy. He is also $11 million in debt, struggling to pay the rent and raise his mentally disabled teenage son with his wife, for whom the term “long-suffering” may have been invented. His last chance is in an investment in a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Greenwald depicts Blech unsparingly but sympathetically. Though Blech’s claim that he and his family are the biggest victims of his crimes may be self-serving, it is true that the firms he helped establish have produced drugs that, according to the film, “have contributed to the fight against Parkinson’s, cancer, and AIDS.”

Not that this was his intention. For him it was a game. Greenwald immerses the viewer in his subject’s palpable misery, guilt, and anxiety, as he waits, benumbed by medication, to learn his fate. It’s a pity one of his companies didn’t come up with a cure for what ails him.

“The Blech Effect” will can be streamed via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, and Vudu.

Go to www.theblecheffect.com.

From "The Andorra Hustle."
From "The Andorra Hustle."Merola Productions

Bank bunko

“By now you are likely asking yourself — why?” says the voiceover narrator in Eric Merola’s compelling and confusing “The Andorra Hustle.”

Well, yeah. For 75 minutes the film has breathlessly outlined a convoluted history in which FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network), an obscure agency empowered by the post 9/11 Patriot Act, accused the Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), a small enterprise in the tiny country of Andorra (population 80,000), of laundering money from terrorists, drug dealers, the Venezuelans, and the Chinese.

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Bewildered, the bank’s executives face investigation, prosecution, and financial ruin. Bad actors in high places in Andorra, Spain, and the United States are shown to be manipulating matters involving a millionaire Chinese smuggler, a Russian mobster on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, and several other entities and individuals of varying degrees of guilt and innocence in which the innocent seem the biggest losers. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a police investigator’s whiteboard, with a network of lines connecting names that leads, presumably, to some solution.

After burying the lead until the last paragraph, the film reveals the real target of all this intrigue (“Get a load of this!” says the narrator). I won’t spoil the denouement, except to say that it involves the brutal repression of an independence movement. Though initially an almost-opaque flurry of acronyms, documents, and indignant interviewees, the film ultimately presents yet another indictment of those who crush with impunity whatever stands in the way of their power and profit.

“The Andorra Hustle” is available on Amazon and YouTube.

Go to www.andorrahustle.com.