Film Review: Rising From Ashes

Moving documentary about bicyclists who train for a Rwandan team that competes in the 2012 Olympics.

Filmed over a seven-year stretch, Rising from Ashes follows Team Rwanda, formed in 2005 to promote competitive biking in a country still recovering from genocide and civil war. By turns uplifting and sobering, the documentary shows the positive results that can arise from simple means.

Narrator Forest Whitaker notes that in 1994, when genocide claimed a million Rwandan lives, a bicycle could mean the difference between life and death. In 2005, Tom Ritchey, a professional racer and one of the early designers of mountain bikes, joined "Project Rwanda," a volunteer effort to develop a national racing team.

Ritchey recruits Jock Boyer, who competes in the first annual Rwandan Wooden Bike Classic in 2006. Boyer loses to Adrien Niyonshuti, a Rwandan native who was racing on a mountain bike for the first time. The race convinces Boyer to continue working for Project Rwanda.

Boyer picks five bicyclists for the first Team Rwanda, including Adrien and Abraham Ruhumuriza. In interviews, Boyer admits that he didn't know much about the genocide in 1994. Two of his racers lost their fathers and brothers. Adrien reveals that he lost at least 60 family members.

Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France, must cope with outdated equipment, persuade his team members to suffer through grueling workouts, and plot a realistic path for the team's future. They compete in the Cape Epic, an eight-day race in South Africa that attracts a thousand of the world's top riders. The team does poorly, but Boyer uses their losses to spur the racers on to better results.

In 2007, Team Rwanda tours the United States, undergoing state-of-the-art testing in Monterey labs, and competing in races in Oregon and New Mexico. Boyer and other volunteers help form a new training center in north Rwanda, expanding the team from the original five racers. In addition to training, members receive room and board, medical care, new equipment and English lessons.

As Boyer points out, his job is to become involved with the lives of the team racers, not just to coach. Project Rwanda helps the bicyclists cope with money problems, celebrity issues, and demands from family members.

Rising From Ashes presents a beguiling portrait of the Rwandan countryside, and its brief interviews with team members range from playful to devastating. Boyer has his own story to tell, and confronts his past in an honest, dignified manner.

Director T.C. Johnstone takes a conventional approach to the material, which wouldn't seem out of place on ESPN. Coverage of some of the races is skimpy, and the movie fails to flesh out details at times. But the story behind Rising from Ashes is so moving and compelling that the documentary's shortcomings seem inconsequential. Viewers can learn a lot about courage and perseverance from the Team Rwanda members.