“Rising from Ashes” is a touching documentary about how two wheels and talent brought Americans and Rwandans together to help in the international redemption of a country recovering from war. The documentary opens on Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse Laemmle 7.
In America, a bicycle seems to be one of the standard gifts one receives for Christmas. What can be better than going from wobbling unsteadily down the sidewalk to sailing down the street with the wind in your face on a sunny December day?
A bicycle seems to be the quintessential summer vehicle of freedom. I recall how surprised I was that one of my old high school friends never learned to ride. Even though we were poor, my father found enough money to give us bicycles. Who knew that one day I’d be riding down the side streets of Yokohama or traveling from Nice to Marseille on a bicycle?
Yet according to T.C. Johnstone’s documentary, produced and narrated by Forest Whitaker, a bicycle is an important means of transportation in Rwanda, despite being the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” Farmers haul their crops to market on bicycles. Instead of taxi cab cars, the country has pedi-cabs. In 1994, during the disastrous 100 days of human slaughter, bicycles helped thousands escape. Yet nearly one million did not escape and died.
In 2005 respected bicycle builder Tom Ritchey, explored Rwanda on bike and met with a group who called themselves Team Rwanda. Rwandans had been racing for decades, even before the 1994 massacres. Instead of the fancy helmets, tight spandex pants, specialized shoes that lock into the pedals and shirts that protect from the sun while wicking away one’s sweat, the Rwandans road barefoot. In many cases, their cycles had not brakes or gears.
Ritchey returned to Rwanda with his old rival, Jock Boyer. Boyer has competed against Ritchey in Northern California competitions before leaving the U.S. at age 17, to compete professionally in France. In 1981, he became the first American to ride in the Tour de France. He competed five times; his best finish was 12th.
Yet Boyer was far from his glory days in 2005. In 2002, he had been charged with seven lewd acts and three counts of penetration with a foreign object with a child under the age of 14 by the Monterrey County District Attorney’s office. The girl was 11 when the acts allegedly began and the acts allegedly occurred between 1997-2000. Boyer had been known as being religious during his time on the French cycling circuit.
Boyer became the coach for Team Rwanda. Through the team he learns about the genocide and Johnstone gives us a quick primer to help us understand the machinations of history. Yet the documentary is less about Boyer and his redemption than the heart of the Rwandan athletes, particularly Adrien Niyonshuti.
In many documentaries and movies, we are asked to see the events through the eyes of a white person. In some documentaries, the concerns and values of the often white Americans are highlighted despite the presence of greater suffering and tragedy from the native population.
The 2011 “After Kony: Staging Hope” was more about how chirpy Americans went to Uganda, without much knowledge of the culture or language, and produced a play about HIV with 14 Ugandan teenagers. The group, Voices for Harmony, is a non-profit community theater group founded by American actress Melissa Fitzgerald (best known for her role as Carol Fitzpatrick on “The West Wing”).
Kony refers to Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He allegedly ordered the abduction of children to be used as soldiers or sex slaves between 1986 and 2009. The 51-year-old has evaded arrest and supposedly left behind 88 wives and 42 children.
The staging of hope in the “After Kony” documentary seems more like the formulation of a play that fit within a comfortable template than one that truly expressed the grief and emotional turmoil of the teens.
There are many stories of Americans in Africa, helping the native population recover but some are more about Western vanity than actually obtaining results. This isn’t the case of T.C. Johnstone’s “Rising from Ashes.” In “Rising from Ashes,” the focus is on the members of Team Rwanda and their resilience in face of tragedy and even, after met with success, jealousy. Where “After Kony” was no doubt heartfelt, I didn’t feel that anything had really changed, particularly given the short and superficial timespan of the project.
“Rising from Ashes” is about a long-term project begun in 2006 and continuing. There is no question that the program has brought results. Johnstone’s documentary features plenty of talking heads, but also footage of cycling. It attempts to explain the difference between riding a road bike–a lean machine meant for speed but not necessarily going over rough terrain, and a mountain bike–a machine that transfers the shock of a bumpy terrain into the riders arms and legs.
For many Americans, the type of bicycle is a matter of style. Once all-terrain or mountain bikes were fashionable. Before that in the 1960s, the wheelie banana seat was popular. Recently, beach cruisers have come back into fashion. For most Americans, bicycles are a not a passion, but more of a pastime. In “Rising from Ashes,” Johnstone shows us who a bicycle can be so much more for a man. Perhaps in the future, Team Rwanda will be for women, too. I’ll be looking for Team Rwanda in the next summer Olympics. If you see this documentary, I’m sure you will as well. Go see this movie and like me you’ll think, “Go Team Rwanda!”