"Rising From Ashes" gives you more than you expect. Its story line is as positive and affirmative as the title indicates, but it turns out there are dramas going on in this documentary that you wouldn't initially suspect.
Directed by T.C. Johnston and filmed over more than six years, "Ashes" tells the wildly improbable story of the Rwandan National Cycling Team, a.k.a. Team Rwanda, and a devoted American coach who says "they're terrified of me, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
The ashes of the title refers to the 1994 genocide in this African country, when Rwandans murdered one another at a horrific rate: As many as 1 million were killed over a roughly three-month period, which worked out to one person killed every 10 seconds for 100 days.
Cycling had always been a popular activity in a country known as "the land of a thousand hills," and when American mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey toured Rwanda in 2005, he saw enough passion among its citizens that he decided to explore the question of whether a national team that could be competitive on the international stage was feasible.
To help find the answer, Ritchey persuaded his old cycling buddy, Jonathan "Jock" Boyer, to come to Rwanda to check out the local talent.
An enormously gifted rider who in 1981 was the first American to ride in the Tour de France, Boyer also had, in Ritchey's words, "a self-destructive streak." He was just coming off of time in jail for sexual acts with an underage girl and was, in a sense, looking to restart his life.
Candid, skeptical and analytical, the articulate Boyer is one of this film's secret weapons, and his no-nonsense appraisals of Team Rwanda's situation are always on the money. He also is something of a sports philosopher who believes that "cycling is about suffering. You can't be a cyclist without going through incredible amounts of pain. Nobody escapes it."
Suffering of a personal sort is something all the members of Team Rwanda know intimately. Though quite young at the time of their country's agonies, they all lost close family members to the killings and are well aware of how much a successful Team Rwanda would mean for themselves personally as well as for the nation as a whole.
Despite the pain in their backgrounds, one pleasure of "Rising From Ashes" is experiencing the wonderful good spirits of the riders, spending time with them as they find their way in the strange new world of competitive cycling.
Boyer initially picks five riders for Team Rwanda, and from the get-go, first among equals is Adrien Niyonshuti, a sweet-natured but determined rider who lost 60 family members, including six brothers and everyone on his mother's side of the family, in the genocide.
Coach and rider form an immediate bond, but one of "Rising's" unexpected story lines is the question of how long Boyer will remain committed to the team. Because Rwandans know well that most Western nongovernmental organizations leave the country after a year or two, Adrien is fearful that his coach will do the same. Also an unforeseen problem for the riders is that once they become celebrities in their country, they become targets for local criminal elements.
Boyer, for his part, has to teach his charges all kinds of things he's taken for granted, like being able to eat and drink while their bikes are moving as well as getting them used to riding bikes new enough to actually stop when the riders hit the brakes.
Director Johnston stayed with Team Rwanda from its beginnings in 2006 right up through their potential participation in the 2012 London Olympics. As a filmmaker, he doesn't always trust his audience as much as he should, opting for overly insistent music and voice-over and withholding information in key areas. But he knew a good story when he saw one, and we can all be grateful for that.
'Rising From Ashes'
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles
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