Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: T C Johnstone.
In 1994 the African country of Rwanda endured a savage and violent episode of “ethnic cleansing” that killed 20% of the population. The horrific genocide killed nearly one million people over the course of three months and devastated the country. In 2005, Tom Ritchey, one of the developers of the mountain bike, discovered the joys of cycling Rwanda, which is known as “the land of a thousand hills” and was perfect terrain for mountain biking. Discovering a passion for bicycling amongst the Rwandan population, Ritchey was inspired to try and develop a team of cyclists and help them qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.
He brought on board rival cyclist Jack Boyer, who was the first American to ride in the grueling Tour De France to help build the team. Boyer himself though was a fallen hero, who had a chequered past, and working with the impoverished Rwandans helped him find some form of redemption.
But the efforts to build a world class cycling team brought hope and a new sense of pride to the nation rising from the ashes of its violent past. Rising From The Ashes is the sophomore feature from documentary filmmaker T C Johnstone (Hearing Everett: The Rancho Sordo Mudo Story), and he spent six years working on the film. Johnstone has amassed a wealth of footage that he has shaped into the documentary. He followed the team through their intense training program and preparation through to the 2012 Olympics. One of the main focuses is on Adrien Niyonshuti, who lost 60 members of his family during the genocide, who becomes the leading rider of the team.
Slick widescreen cinematography captures the expansive beauty of the country, and offers a wonderful contrast to the stark horrors of the recent past. Some archival footage gives us brief insights into the effects of European colonisation of Africa, where supposedly a more enlightened but arrogant cultural outlook was imposed over traditional ways and superstitions. But we also learn how the Belgians began to racially identify the different tribes within Rwanda, which ultimately led to the bitter rivalry between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes which resulted in the brutal genocide of 1994. Hotel Rwanda was an unflinching dramatisation of the events of 1994 and brought home the true horror of the casual violence that left millions of innocent people dead as collateral damage.
The film has been narrated by Forest Whitaker, who is one of the producers, and he lends a touch of gravitas to the material.
The inspirational story of Team Rawanda is not just about a cycling team but about rebuilding a country that has been devastated by racial hatred and violence. It is is a story of hope, redemption and second chances, not only for the country and the riders but for Boyer himself.
While it is an inspirational story, Rising From Ashes is not entirely successful. Even with a relatively brief running time of 82 minutes, the material seems stretched out and it also becomes a little repetitive, with many shots of bike riders pedaling through the countryside. The music score from Joshua Myers also becomes a little too melodramatic. And the talking heads interviews become a little bland. The backstory of the troubled Boyers, who served time in prison for an indiscretion involving an under-aged girl, also detracts from the main narrative which could have been quite compelling in its own right.