Nearly 20 years have passed since the Rwandan genocide in which elements of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered an estimated 800,000 minority Tutsis during a civil war. Most Westerners have been ignoring the small central African country since then, and T.C. Johnstone’s earnest, often uplifting, but overly warm and fuzzy documentary about the Rwandan national cycling team probably won’t fill in much of the gap. Though the subject inspires, Johnstone’s treatment lacks focus and edge, falling back on platitudes, sentiment, and generalities when clarity is what is needed.
Like so many other Western films about Africa, whether fictional or documentary, “Rising From Ashes” puts a white man center stage, a way into the otherness of the experience, presumably, for the average viewer. In this instance, the focus is deserved. A look into Jock Boyer’s eyes opens into a world of pain, regret, and penitence. A cycling champion at 17, Boyer in 1983 became the first American to compete in the Tour de France. Then his career ended with a prison sentence. Halfway into the movie, in one of the film’s more powerful talking-head interviews (it consists almost entirely of these, plus a lot of bicycling and a few gruesome archival images of the genocide), Boyer reveals what crimes he committed. It is a good thing Johnstone waited to reveal this, as it allows enough sympathy to develop to accept, if not forgive, Boyer’s transgression.
It also illuminates Boyer’s motivation for taking on the challenge of training a Rwandan cycling team for possible Olympic competition in 2006. He needed redemption and a second chance, something he shared, as the film repeatedly points out, with the Rwandan people in general, and the ragtag members of his team in particular. Most of the latter were children when the killings happened, and now they are eager to put the bloody past behind them and show the world a different Rwanda. They include Adrien Niyonshuti, who lost 60 members of his family, including six brothers, and now sees this as an opportunity to overcome this tragedy and achieve respect and prosperity for his family and country.
But what is the situation in his country today? A sketchy history lesson skips the events of the last two decades. Amid the upbeat iterations of the themes of teamwork, perseverance, rehabilitation, and reconciliation, some glimpses into the troubled present-day situation slip through. Despite its repeated insistence on community and family support, “Ashes” notes that when the team returned from its US tour in 2007, members were besieged by relatives and strangers demanding money. Some were threatened. One team member’s wife and daughter died under mysterious circumstances, and he is convinced that they were poisoned. And that’s it — this alarming development passes in the film like a bump in the road.
In short, “Ashes” comes precariously close to sugarcoating the ongoing turmoil of a beleaguered nation. Some might find it reassuring and put the ongoing crisis out of mind. But some moments will linger, such as the raw emotion with which Boyer, recalling the loss of his own father at an early age, reaffirms his commitment to his team. Or the hard-earned pride with which Niyonshuti bears his nation’s flag before a cheering multitude at the 2012 London Olympics.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.