A complex and revealing documentary directed by T. C. Johnstone, Rising From Ashes chronicles the creation and development of the Rwandan cycling team, which, under the tutelage of legendary American cyclist Jonathan Boyer (known informally as “Jock”) ascends from a legacy of tragedy and obscurity to Olympic renown. The spirit and dedication of the film’s riders is all the more compelling, of course, considering that these team members are survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Most were children in 1994 when the genocide occurred, and all lost family members and loved ones during this brutal episode of ethnic cleansing. Cycling became a means of escape; a bike signified possible survival.
Now, as adults, riding has been repurposed as a sport that provides each dedicated athlete a sense of purpose, and accordingly, the film suggests that success as a cyclist is not exclusively based on athletic prowess, but also relies on mental fortitude and endurance. Rising from Ashes also shows an inextricable relationship between physical and emotional suffering that’s made all the more more acute because these cyclists have a devastating perspective on life and death. Precarious trails, unpredictable mechanical failures, strategic cycling formations, biological dispositions, and physical conditioning are all difficult obstacles, but they pale in comparison to what these athletes have already endured.
Jock’s devotion redeems his somewhat strict but ultimately disciplined coaching approach. While he sometimes interacts harshly with the cyclists, his commitment to the teams’ success is obvious. And, as Adrien Niyonshuti, one of the most promising team members mentions, Rwandan citizens are accustomed to the inconsistency of NGOs and other foreign aid organizations that pass through the country; the most surprising aspect of Jock, Niyonshuti notes, is that he stayed. Through years of training and travel, he remained, refusing to abandon the team even when professional success seemed unattainable. Still, Jock himself is not an unflawed mentor. He is surprisingly candid regarding his own failings, some which eventually led to a conviction and jail time. His stay in prison is a transformative experience in the film, affording him a new appreciation for both life and his athletic gifts. He becomes almost evangelical about cycling, fervently believing in its ability to salvage and sustain the human spirit.
It is difficult to write about Rising from Ashes without deferring to overly-romanticized tropes of perseverance and fortitude; it is hard not to make mention of overcoming obstacles and the trials and tribulations — but it is fitting. Not only does Rising From Ashes follow the conventional arc of sports movies where a group of ragtag, underdog, no-name athletes blossom into a potent group of champions; the documentary is also imbued with a heavy historical, moral component that lends a redemptive quality. Cycling has resurrected one segment of the Rwandan community. As the title ultimately suggests, for these athletes, it can can rehabilitate hope in a deflated and ravaged country.