Inspirational sports documentary Rising From Ashes follows cycling legend Jock Boyer on a six-year journey to train the first ever national cycling team of Rwanda. Directed by T.C. Johnstone and executive produced and narrated by Forest Whitaker, the film opens in theaters tomorrow, August 2, in New York and Los Angeles.
Inspired by cyclists he met on a 2005 bicycle tour of Rwanda, Tom Ritchey, one of the inventors of the mountain bike, sets out to create a team he hopes will qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. To help train them, he enlists the help of Boyer, his old racing rival and the first American ever to ride in the Tour de France. Through interviews and Whitaker’s narration, we learn that everyone is hoping this team will bring pride and redemption to a country still devastated by the 1994 genocide that killed nearly 20% of its population. Slick photography reflects a community that has been broken, but still has a piercing beauty.
Like star cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti, who lost 60 members of his family in the genocide, the teammates – mostly in their teens – have been crippled by loss and cling to each other for support. This is also a story of personal redemption for Boyer, who hints at a dark past including family struggles and a 2002 conviction for lewd behavior with a minor. Without much prior knowledge of Rwanda he focuses instead on bringing structure and discipline to the team.
There are plenty of sports dramas, many of them narrative films, about white coaches who enter depressed black communities to inspire young athletes to greatness. They often come off as overly emotional and paternalistic, which may be why this doc concerns itself mostly with the team’s actual sports exploits – learning to train, struggling with outdated bikes, and performing in their first races. Still, in a country with as complicated a history and ongoing struggle as Rwanda, there’s a desire to know much more about the people in this film and the community they come from. Details about the cyclists’ lives, their fate, and their culture are glossed over in favor of focusing on their athletic performance. In the end, the story is uplifting, but not as impactful as it could be.