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White messiah rides Rwanda's cycle of hope

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Rising From Ashes (M). Director: T. C. Johnstone. Starring: Jock Boyer, Adrien Niyonshuti. 79 minutes

In 1981 Californian cyclist Jonathan 'Jock' Boyer became the first American to compete in the Tour de France. In 2002, just four years after being inducted into the United States Cycling Hall of Fame, he was convicted of lewd behaviour with a minor after, in his words, 'crossing the line' with an underage girl. He copped a one-year prison sentence and served out several subsequent years on probation.

Rising From Ashes is a documentary about second chances, and takes 'hope' as its theme. It finds Boyer immersed in his post-prison vocation, as coach of Team Rwanda, a team for Rwandan cyclists, associated with aid organisation Project Rwanda. It is Boyer's story of 'rising from the ashes' of his dark times, paralleled with Rwanda's own resurgent hope, epitomised by the experiences of Boyer's talented but traumatised charges.

It is a redemption story for Boyer, but he is also cast somewhat uncomfortably as a softly spoken 'white messiah'. By his own admission, when he arrived in Rwanda he knew little of the 1994 genocide that saw almost 1,000,000 minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu slaughtered. Less still of the direct personal impact upon the young men he had begun training, all of whom were living witnesses to the slaughter, and lost family members to it.

He draws comparison between the hope that cycling offers these men in the wake of such horrific experiences, and the hope he rediscovered after prison by literally getting back on his bike. It is a sincere if naïve observation. A likeable, flawed hero, he shares an account of the day when, as a six-year-old, he watched his father walk out on his family, and tearfully explains that this experience underpins his commitment to his team.

The film follows the drafting of the 'original five' members of Team Rwanda — Boyer is a firm coach who demands not only a high level of skill but also the right personality traits to achieve excellence — and their initial incursions into competitive cycling in South Africa and America. It captures the bond shared by the team members, who are united not only by their sport but also by their shared, bleak history.

It is a weakness of the film though that they are largely footnotes to Boyer's story. The wife of one cyclist is murdered in an attack apparently provoked by his perceived wealth as a member of Team Rwanda. The film fails to tease out the cultural sensitivities that might have been involved, and gives scant consideration to the young man's life. In this the film is almost myopic in its gentle but persistent adulation of Boyer.

Most prominent of the film's supporting characters is Adrien Niyonshuti, who through his involvement with Team Rwanda went on to receive a professional contract with a South African cycling team. His journey to representing Rwanda at the 2012 London Olympics provides the film with a stirring climax, that cuts between Niyonshuti at the Games and the hopeful faces of ordinary Rwandans clustered around their televisions.

That Niyonshuti finished 39th in that race is beside the point. Boyer is realistic in saying that his work with Team Rwanda and Project Rwanda today is about laying foundations for tomorrow's generations of Rwandans. Rising From Ashes is a useful backgrounder for this work but only shows a part of the picture. The real work in Rwanda is ongoing and long-term. For now though, there is always hope.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Rising From Ashes, Rwanda, T. C. Johnstone, Jock Boyer, Forest Whitaker



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Just wanted to say "thank you" for this article and the sensitive way you dealt with the issues.

jo anne lala | 06 June 2014  

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