Rising From Ashes

American cycling legend Jock Boyer with Team Rwandan Olympian Adrien Niyonshuti as seen in “Rising From Ashes,” a film by T.C. Johnstone (Photo Credit First Run Features)

*Hollywood legend Forest Whitaker is the narrator and executive producer of the historical and award-winning Rising From Ashes about the world of cycling which was released through First Run Features on Friday, August 2, 2013.  As of this writing, community members and organizations across the country are hosting screenings to raise awareness and start important dialogues surrounding this non-fictional cycling documentary about Team Rwanda and its climb to the pinnacle of cycling.

Superbly directed by T.C. Johnstone, Rising From Ashes tells the story of cycling legend Jock Boyer who moves to Rwanda to help the first Rwandan National Cycling Team in their six year journey to compete in the Olympic Games in London.

The long and amazing ride to the Olympic Games is fraught with impossible odds experienced by both Jock and the team.  Rising From Ashes shows how these deterrents inspired the team as they rose from the ashes of their past.

Rising From Ashes follows Jock (the first American to compete in the Tour de France) and his Rwandan riders as they slowly but steadily learn what it means to be a professional cyclist — how to train, how to compete, how to live the life of a top level athlete.  As they get better and better, the riders of Team Rwanda give their countrymen a vision of something greater than themselves and their history: hope for a future.

In Rwanda, ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’, the bicycle is essential to life.  It is how you move.  It is how you work.  And during the Genocide, it is how you survived.  Stand on any corner of any village throughout the country, and farmers will scream down hillsides barefoot on 25 year old bikes loaded with 100 pounds of potatoes, taxi drivers peddle diligently with a mother and daughter in tow and a child amuses himself for hours guiding a bent wheel down alleyways.  It seems natural that bike racing has a rich history in Rwanda.  For decades the country has participated in the sport, hosting local races for bragging rights, riding barefoot, many times without brakes or gears.

During 100 days in 1994, as Rwandans were systematically murdered, thousands escaped certain death on their bikes.  When the dust settled and the perpetrators were subdued, the country mourned the death of nearly one million of their countrymen.  Amidst the heartache and trauma, a committed group of young cyclists began importing racing bikes into the country with the hopes of resurrecting the sport.  In 2005, legendary bike builder Tom Ritchey explored the country on his bike, and upon meeting a group of cyclists who called themselves Team Rwanda, left with the vision there was potential for a National Team, and a question.  What if they could make it to the Olympics?

Jock Boyer is one of America’s most fabled cyclists.  He grew up battling Tom Ritchey in Northern California’s competitive cycling leagues, out of this rivalry a mutual admiration and friendship was born.  At the age of 17, Jock left the U.S. to compete professionally against the World’s elite in France, and in 1981 he made history as the First American to ever ride in the Tour de France.  Upon his return to the United States, after a prolific racing career, he would lose it all.  In this period of darkness Tom reconnected with his long lost friend with an unlikely proposition, an offer to become the Coach of Rwanda’s first National Cycling Team.

Rising From Ashes

Olympian and Team Rwandan member Adrien Niyonshuti as seen in “Rising From Ashes,” a film by T.C. Johnstone (Photo Credit First Run Features)

The star of Team Rwanda is Adrien Niyonshuti.  Adrien lost 60 family members in the Genocide, including six brothers and his mother’s entire line of heritage.  Maybe because he sought purpose behind his pain, maybe he just had a gift, but Adrien started cycling.  In 2006, he rode a mountain bike for the first time — catching Jock and winning a local race, which forged the beginning of a relationship between two broken men.  In 2011, Adrien qualified for the Olympic Games, a bold achievement that would send shockwaves throughout Rwanda, a living example that the ghosts and demons of our past have no power over our future.

Rising From Ashes was produced by two partnering non-profit’s, Gratis 7 Media Group and Project Rwanda.  They in turn support Team Rwanda.  Executive Producers: Forest Whitaker, Jon Halbert, Linda Halbert, Peb Jackson, and Dan Cooper.  Producer: Greg Kwedar.  Composer: Joshua Myers.  Cinematographers: David Eggerichs, Ryan Scheer Jeremy Rodgers, and Jeffrey Waldron.
Team Rwanda started out as a cycling organization however they quickly learned they had to care for the greater needs of each athlete.  Many of the riders could not read or write, lived in homes without fresh drinking water, were malnourished, and had never received healthcare.  But there was still a greater issue, the issues of the heart.  These riders were all recovering from the traumatic psychological effects of the 1994 genocide. Team Rwanda had to look deeper.

Team Rwanda has not solved all of these problems but it is making a difference.

– Riders are provided a modest salary to help provide for themselves and their families.
– Riders are given English lessons and taught how to read and write.
– Health care is provided for the ongoing issues of malaria and water-borne diseases.
– When funds are available, the riders are given regular health checks and dental care.

While the team has taken care of the physical and mental issues it has provided something greater: Hope.

Rwanda is a country recovering from one of the world’s most devastating genocides and they have longed for heroes.  The riders of Team Rwanda have become more than just a cycling team; they have become ambassadors of hope and men to look up to.  They have given the country a vision of something greater then themselves and a renewed sense of purpose.

About T.C. Johnstone
T.C. Johnstone (Director / Producer / Editor) began making films in Steamboat Springs over 10 years ago.  After producing his first feature he moved to California and began working as a DP and documentary director on a wide variety of projects ranging from national television (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Discovery) to independent films.  He currently focuses on independent documentary feature films.

New York based award-winning journalist Audrey J. Bernard covers entertainment, fashion & beauty, film, lifestyles and travel for the Electronic Urban Report and other outlets.  Contact her via: [email protected]

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Audrey J. Bernard