Born again with bikes

TEAM SPIRIT: The Rawandan national cycling team have become serious contenders on the world stage since being trained by American cycle champ Jock Boyer.
TEAM SPIRIT: The Rawandan national cycling team have become serious contenders on the world stage since being trained by American cycle champ Jock Boyer.

A new feature documentary looks at the unusual story of a former champion American cyclist who went to post-genocide Rwanda to train its national cycle team.

Summarising  the story told in feature documentary Rising from Ashes is easy. Champion cyclist Jock Boyer - the first American to ride in the Tour de France - had the world at his feet, then ended up rock bottom in jail.

Years later he goes to Rwanda while the African nation is still dealing with the aftermath of the horrendous 1994 genocide. There, he trains young cyclists into a national team to compete on the world stage.

It's only over the course of the film, narrated by Hollywood actor Forest Whitaker, that we get to understand the at times laconic Boyer and discover why he went to jail.

But as director TC Johnstone explains, not only was Boyer at first reluctant to even visit Rwanda, let alone live there - the cyclist didn't even want to be in the documentary.

"He didn't want to make the film for three years. [But] he was stuck with us and then he started warming up to it over time. Recently we were at the United Nations and he said, 'I didn't want to make this film'. It's the first time he's ever admitted it. He is quite a stubborn chap and he said, 'For three years I fought this film'.

"To Jock's defence I don't know if I would want my life on film. He had gone through a dramatic past and had made some choices that were maybe not the most positive. But I was always fascinated.

"What drew me to him is that he was going through this reconciliation story. You hear people in audiences go, 'I've made a bunch of bad choices in my life that I've been hiding for years and I never thought I would be able to get back up from them. This film has given me a chance to know my life's not over'.

"When Jock hears that I'm like, 'I told you, I told you'."

Johnstone has been making films for about 10 years and working on others, including as cinematographer on a documentary about the annual transcontinental Race Across America bicycle race. He knows bicycle builder Tom Ritchey, one of the inventors of the mountain bike. But Johnstone says he isn't a competitive cyclist and didn't even know much about cycling before Rising from Ashes.

He was, however, crucial in kick-starting Boyer's move to Rwanda. "In 2005 I happened to be in Rwanda and a gentleman approached me by the name of Dan Cooper. He said, 'Hey, I have an idea for a movie'. My first reaction is, 'You and everybody else have an idea for a movie'.

"But he said, 'No, no, no. I brought my bike over and was on my $6000 mountain bike and I ended up in this race with this local guy on this 100lb [45kg] bike in rubber boots. I gave it all I had and he passed me and when he passed me I realised he had 50lb [22kg] of potatoes on the back of his bike - so I think there is cycling talent here'."

Johnstone says he and Cooper then had the same thought: everything they had read about Rwanda on the internet before arriving was at odds with what they were seeing.

"It was the safest, fastest- growing country and incredibly beautiful. There was so much going for it, but it was getting a bad rap in the world. I went, 'What would it look like to tell the new story of Rwanda?' No one was talking about the good things happening there."

Johnstone returned to Rwanda with Cooper and now with Ritchey in tow.

"Tom saw the vision and said, 'These guys have the talent to be professional cyclists'." Johnstone says it was then that he knew he had to film what would happen. He wanted to capture an "impossible story".

"And that's what this was and it kind of took off from there".

The film doesn't flinch from explaining what happened during the genocide, where in 100 days up to 1 million Rwandans were killed by the majority Hutu. The Rwandan cyclists in the film were children during the genocide and most only survived because their families fled the country. None was untouched. One cyclist, Adrien Niyonshuti, lost 60 members of his family.

But it also reveals that many people survived by fleeing on bicycles, which are the main mode of transport in "the land of a thousand hills".

Johnstone says the importance of bicycles in Rwanda was something he only learned when in the country and he has since screened the film in some cinemas there.

"One of the things we're gathering support for right now is that the cyclists have wanted to show this in their villages. But we need US$25,000 (NZ$28,000) to do that. Those screenings can easily draw a crowd of anywhere between three and five thousand people. What it does is give them a vision. Most of the world is illiterate and that's the same for Rwanda."

Johnstone says it wasn't difficult to get an actor of Whitaker's standing to narrate his film. "The film to him was more than just a movie. He has been involved in peace and reconciliation all over the world and has his own organisation on peace. That man is fabulous. I spent days with him and so often when you meet celebrities it's like, 'Oh, you're just doing this for the PR'. But that is a man who has character, dignity, respect for others and a deep conviction for the things that matter in the world." Johnstone is now working on other projects including one on "redefining education in America" through a school journalism project where celebrities were interviewed by 10 to 12-year-olds. But he hints that there's potential for a dramatic version of the Rising from Ashes story. "But I can't really talk too much about it. It's still under wraps, but we are in the midst of the narrative version."

- Rising from Ashes is screening now.

The Dominion Post