Bicycles represent different things to different people. In China, it always has and still is a mainstay of expeditious transportation; it was a symbol of personal freedom to nineteenth-century suffragists; recent studies have shown that it makes marked help in poverty alleviation for families in third world countries; and in some places, it means the difference between life and death, and that doesn’t just refer to fixie-riding alleycats who worship at the altar of all things bike and cycle. During the genocide in Rwanda during the 1990’s, having a bicycle in your possession meant your chances of escaping execution by machete-wielding angry mobs increasing exponentially. Rising from Ashes tells of a group of survivors who ultimately came to form the national cycling team, Team Rwanda, to whom the bicycle is end-all symbol for life.
With the warm, hum of Forest Whitaker’s narration, director T.C. Johnstone guides you through the life and times of the members of Team Rwanda as well as the redemption of famed road-cyclist Jock Boyer who became the team’s coach. As the story goes, most people were unaware of the severity of the Rwandan genocide – inventor of the modern mountain bike and cyclist Tom Ritchey says as much. In 2005 Ritchey visited Rwanda, known as “the Land of a Thousand Hills,” on a cycling trip where he met a group of young men who called themselves Team Rwanda. Moved by the passion and dedication of these unknown riders, Ritchey urged his friend Boyer, first American to ride in the modern Tour de France whose image was still slightly suffering from a scandal that saw him in jail a few years earlier, to come to Africa and judge the potential there. Inspired himself by the talent he witnessed, especially in the young Adrien Niyonshuti who would go on to win a bid to compete in the 2012 London Olympics, Boyer moved to Rwanda to coach and hone the skills of those men.
The strength of Ashes is its refusal to shy away from reality. To present the context of the story and to communicate the magnitude of the horrors that Team Rwanda overcame as both athletes and as human beings, Johnstone includes footage of the genocide at its very worst, to put it mildly. And yet, Niyonshuti shine through with the light of life with an appreciation for being that would put most average Westerners to shame; they have dealt with so much and still do, and still they find it within themselves to sacrifice their chances at greatness for each other. Unfortunately, the story though moving lacks structure that makes the various moments run together into a mishmash where only moments of horror and sadness or astounding sportsmanship truly standout. As such the film suffers a great loss of intricacy that could have made this awesome story into an awesome movie. But as Ashes is such a beautiful and magnanimous example at the vastness of human potential, narrative snafus are more easily forgiven.