Wheels of change: ‘Rising from Ashes’ much more than a bike documentary
October 6, 2012
T.C. Johnstone calls it the film that never ends. The project is constantly evolving, he says. New milestones continue to crop up.
More succinctly, this story grabbed the Austin, Texas, filmmaker and has yet to let go.
Ask him about the components of a great documentary – the eccentricities, the adventure, the people charting unique courses – and Johnstone will tell you this tale had it all.
That became abundantly clear during a chance meeting in 2005, when Johnstone first visited Rwanda with friends Dan Cooper and Tom Ritchey, an accomplished mountain biker and fabricator.
The trio planned an extensive ride around the “Country of 1,000 Hills.” Cooper suggested they invite a group of budding cyclists he had met on a previous trip to East Africa.
“Dan invited them to the hotel where we were staying, and the next day, these guys went on a 100-mile ride. Most of the guys actually survived, and a bunch of them had smiles on their faces,” Johnstone recalls. “Tom, who’s been building bikes since he was 14, immediately said, ‘These guys have it. They’ve got the drive to potentially be world-class cyclists.’ He then said, ‘Why don’t we start a team? What if one day they could go to the Olympics?’
“Dan and Tom then looked at me and said, ‘What if we make a movie about it?'”
The result of a nearly seven-year odyssey is a compelling and emotional documentary, “Rising from Ashes,” which chronicles the trials and tribulations of Team Rwanda’s original five members and its coach, Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, an accomplished cyclist and the first American ever to compete in the Tour de France.
The film premiered Friday at New York’s Hamptons International Film Festival. Director/producer Johnstone and friend and fellow Austin resident Greg Kwedar, also a producer, will be at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, when their work is shown as part of the 34th annual Aspen Filmfest.
“I got involved about two years ago … and the first time I went to Rwanda, I (had the same preconceived notions) as everybody else,” Kwedar says. “When the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, the reality of what you’re walking into is something you just don’t know.
“I was cautious, but as I got to know everybody, you realize there is such joy in these people. … Juxtapose that against (the backdrop of) mass murder, and it’s very compelling.”
“Rising from Ashes” is much more than a bike movie. The 82-minute film, narrated by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, is a story about resilience and second chances, Kwedar says.
Fundamentally, it is a story of hope. It revolves around a group of charismatic young men doggedly pursuing a better life and trying to reshape the perception of a country ripped at the seams during a 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of nearly 1 million people.
“What I learned about how they look at life is that they want to get back up,” Johnstone says. “Rwandans are very prideful people. They’re not waiting around. They want to move forward.”
Adds Kwedar, “I always want to, if possible, boil something down to a single question, a question that will take you all across the world trying to discover it. … I would say that question is: Are we more than our past?
“These riders represent the bigger story. It’s like Jock says, ‘You can see it in their eyes.’ They’ve been to hell, and there’s something about you as a result – reverence, a new perspective on life – that makes you thankful for every day.”
In the film, Boyer suggests that cycling is about suffering and enduring an incredible amount of pain that nobody can escape. Team Rwanda members know that feeling well. They were just children when ethnic tensions escalated, then took a catastrophic turn. The result: one death every 10 seconds for 100 straight days.
The team’s standout, Adrien Niyonshuti, lost his mother, six brothers and 54 other family members. The circumstances are still difficult to bear, he admits in the film. It is the reason his head aches during long training rides.
It is the reason the riders cling to Boyer and to their bikes – their vehicle for change.
“I was kind of blown away by their bikes at first. They were junk, but the way they treated them, you’d think they were riding $12,000 Treks,” Kwedar recalls. “What first struck me was the bike and how it was a part of their culture. They used it as a wheelbarrow, as a taxi. I saw people carrying mattresses and whole dining sets. It was mind-blowing.
“On so many different levels, it was appropriate for a group of heroes to be riding for a bike team.”
It is a team that steadily gained both attention and respect in the past five years, and one that ultimately produced an Olympian. Niyonshuti, now a rider for South Africa’s MTN Qhubeka, qualified to represent his country in cross-country mountain biking at the 2012 London games.
It’s likely that Niyonshuti soon will compete in the Tour de France, too.
“He’s a symbol to the country, a hero in that sense,” Kwedar says. “He’s an ambassador for Rwanda and the rest of the world.
“The future of Rwandan cycling is not Adrien. It’s the 14-year-old who shows up eating two bananas and rides 100 miles for the dream of being tested by Jock. … They know their life could change.”
Kwedar’s and Johnstone’s lives sure have.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this story,” Johnstone says. “At the end of my life, I’m going to look back and say, ‘That mattered.'”
Adds Kwedar, “I was on this road trip after college, and I was reading ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ There was this quote: (‘To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.’) I thought I’d be absolutely mortified for this whole premiere weekend, … but it will kind of just be a bonus if everybody likes this film. It was more to us than a movie. It was about the friendships we made.
“In the last few years chasing this, so many Hail Marys were thrown and landed, and so many challenges that seemed damn near impossible were faced. It was a movie that never ended, but the process was right. I know we did our best work. I know we fought for these guys.”