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Rising from Ashes

2013 | 79 min | Not rated | 1.85:1

Rising from Ashes


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Theatrical release date

 23 August, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Rising from Ashes Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 22, 2013

It’s a given that “Rising from Ashes” succeeds at selling its inspirational tale. After all, the story includes genocide survival, an underdog saga, and a soulful rebirth in the form of unexpected companionship, making the feature easy to fall for. It’s slight work, without much in the way of a beginning and ending, but as a documentary it scores with a heartfelt study of perseverance, watching those who struggle every single day to contain their lives build confidence and develop an alien sense of joy, with that purity of spirit contributing to a sporting odyssey that’s more about human details than physical achievement.

After the brutality and widespread death of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, the country was left with a shell-shocked population, with children in particular witnessing atrocities that would go on to define their scattered personalities as they developed into adulthood. In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the inventor of the mountain bike, discovered an appreciation for the sport in Rwanda, finding eager participants looking to experience the challenge of competition through the country’s vast network of hills and roads, with some, including Adrien, hoping to use the sport as a means to focus on his gifts of endurance. Calling in friend and racing champion Jock Boyer to coach a few of the more dedicated cyclists, a Rwandan team was soon born, leaving the American to help mold these easily distracted men into biking machines. Offering purpose to locals trying to retain individuality, Boyer soon found himself with an efficient team of trained riders looking forward to the test of world competition.

Narrated by Forest Whitaker and directed by T.C. Johnstone, “Rising from Ashes” offers a unique look at life in Rwanda. With the country rebuilding itself in the shadow of unspeakable violence, the next generation has matured into leaders and fathers, with these men hoping to distinguish themselves after lives pummeled by nightmares and personal loss. The production provides a history lesson on the history of the Hutu and Tutsi conflict, helping to establish the private pain shared by the cyclists, but the majority of the documentary clings to positivity and a sense of national pride, detailing the aspirations of a Rwandan cyclist such as Adrien, who finds himself with renewed function and drive, blossoming under Boyer’s tough-but-fair leadership as he transforms a hobby into a lifestyle.

“Rising from Ashes” primarily concentrates on 2007, where the Rwandan team was thoroughly challenged with races in South Africa and America, allowing the men to step outside the country and experience the world for the first time. Hoping to prove themselves as contenders, Johnstone highlights the tenacity of the squad, facing strange climates and difficult terrain as they pedal to potential victory. We also observe Boyer’s efforts to train and test the Rwandans using advanced technology, hoping to learn which cyclist has the sport buried in their DNA. It’s appealing to watch the team come together as a biking unit, with the picture stressing the family aspect of the bond. Also compelling are the races, which hit all the required beats of sporting suspense.

Perhaps most curious is the treatment of Boyer, who’s handed the broadest arc of redemption, taking some of the spotlight off the Rwandans. An unsettled man with abandonment issues, Boyer is also a convicted sex offender who’s served his sentence, tarnishing his cycling legacy. Johnstone doesn’t labor on the specifics of the crime (Boyer admitted to sexual relations with a teenage girl), though such a troubling topic seems directly connected to the man’s need for a fresh start in a new country. Boyer’s a fascinating personality with hints of darkness that are unexplored, edited into a fatherly role that’s satisfying but unenlightening in the long run, reducing his participation to that of the average screen coach -- all tough love and teary recollections of cycling spirit.

There’s something of a Big Game finale to “Rising from Ashes,” watching Johnston single out Adrien as he makes a play for Olympic glory, exceeding his wildest cycling dreams. It’s a jubilant conclusion, but a little light on details. However, a few gaps in the narrative do little to tarnish the impact of this stirring tale, which offers big heart and quick feet to those in the mood for a story that reinforces the power of the human spirit.

Narrator: Forest Whitaker

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