Rising From Ashes, winner of audience awards and best-documentary nods from more than a dozen respected film festivals, opens by flashing a Rwandan proverb across the screen: "You can outrun that which is running after you, but not what is running inside you."
To understand the depth of that quote, one word is key: Rwandan. The three-month 1994 genocide in Rwanda claimed more than a million lives, or one every 10 seconds for 100 straight days, as we're reminded inside a painful and poignant segment early on. Corpses lay in the streets, skulls line shelves inside of a memorial museum, and we're to recall that the killing was extraordinarily brutal, done with machetes and clubs.
That same segment, narrated by executive producer Forest Whitaker, also covers the brief history of early-20th-century European colonization in the country. The Belgians divided its citizens into ethnic groups based on physical attributes — a disgusting, pre-Nazi Eugenics blunder creating drastic division that ultimately led disenfranchised Hutus to lash out at the supposed "superior" Tutsis.
But like so many documentaries that detail triumph out of tragedy, Rising From Ashes deftly moves toward its uplifting central story. In this case, it's the unlikely, against-all-odds creation nearly eight years ago of the national cycling body, Team Rwanda, and also its pairing with a haunted coach, Jock Boyer, who went from being the first American to compete in the Tour de France to being a convicted felon.
The strong juxtaposition gifts the film more weight and unsettling dynamism than the average underdog story. The themes of life and death, redemption and hope are beyond overt. They're etched across the strained-yet-somehow-smiling faces of the cyclists. "It's all unspoken, just lookin' at them," says Boyer. "The way I could really see their past in their eyes is pretty much how much hope the bike gave them."
During the genocide, two wheels literally meant life or death via a rapid escape. Today, moving from 25-year-old bikes with broken gears to modern equipment, while earning a global reputation and inspiring youth, the riders have become a vehicle themselves for psychological healing and national unity. Colorful scenes of 30 or more people crowded around one television, cheering on Team Rwanda, hint at a slow, subtle transformation beyond contagious mirth.
Those themes are also directly translated from the cyclists' mouths. Star rider Adrien Niyonshuti speaks of losing six brothers in the genocide, then bringing hope to his country as he patiently climbs his way onto the international stage. The father-son relationship that develops between him and Boyer offers a particularly touching portrait, as Boyer takes up residence in Rwanda, commanding a training center that also provides English lessons, meals, limited healthcare and, indirectly, sustenance for wider communities via "modest" salaries. (A person with means in the culture likely feeds 20 others, per cultural norm.)
A late-film, heart-pounding race scene with Niyonshuti, worth not spoiling here, demonstrates director/editor T.C. Johnstone's ability to manage the drama inherent to competitive sports as well as within the personal narratives. But the film always returns to the human element: simmering sadness and grief and constructive ways to rebuild ourselves and our communities.
"Everything else, whether it's trophies or anything," says Boyer, "really doesn't have any value unless you can use it for something to better other people."