Sports provide a path for redemption for both athletes and coaches in Rising From Ashes, a documentary whose power is diminished by uneven storytelling. Narrated by Forest Whitaker, T.C. Johnstone’s film charts the achievements of Rwanda’s mountain bike team, which was assembled in 2006 by Tom Ritchey (one of the inventors of the mountain bike) and the man he chose to help oversee the endeavor, mountain biking legend Jock Boyer (the first American to compete in the Tour De France). In interviews, Jock confesses to initially knowing little about Rwanda or the 1994 genocide that tore the country apart, and his candid comments about his own post-career struggles—which included a stint in prison for lewd behavior with a minor—are so bracing that it’s disappointing to find the film skimming over his backstory. That’s typical of Rising From Ashes, which soon introduces a number of engaging Team Rwanda riders, led by emerging star Adrien, whose traumatic experiences losing families and loved ones to ethnic cleansing and/or illness receive only cursory mentions. The fact that the team’s biking exploits take center stage makes sense for a film about athletics-facilitated transcendence. Yet by brushing past the cyclists’ truly horrific histories, their victories fail to resonate with requisite uplifting impact.
Despite that nagging shortcoming, Rising From Ashes still proves an intermittently gripping portrait of cycling as a vehicle for figuratively escaping the past for a brighter future. The director’s glossy cinematographic depiction of Rwanda is in tune with the riders’ belief that their cycling successes will help positively rewrite the nation’s reputation, as well as alter their own lives for the betterment of their loved ones. The film is most compelling when simply depicting Adrien and company’s downtime while traveling through America, where it becomes clear that the team functions as a surrogate family, with Jock as the loving but tough paterfamilias. However, such notions—articulated by both Jock and Adrien in interviews—are never sufficiently developed, so busy is the film barreling forward toward 2012, where an Olympic bid hangs in the balance. Johnstone shrewdly focuses less on the outcome of individual races and more on how the team’s very existence—and increasing celebrity profile both at home and abroad—brought hope to Rwanda. Too bad, then, that Team Rwanda’s inspiring rise to prominence and eventual course triumphs are so thinly sketched that the film leaves the audience wanting more, in the most frustrating way possible.