Project Rwanda has, by all accounts, done good work. For the past seven years, the international relief nonprofit has built up a competitive national cycling team. In a country where residents struggle mightily with poverty and healthcare access, the group propels athletes who lost family during their country’s 1994 genocide into the international spotlight for a much better reason. One member of its team, Adrien Niyonshuti, qualified to compete at the 2012 London Olympics.
But Rising From Ashes, a film produced by Project Rwanda and funded by its donors, is little more than an 82-minute fundraising pitch. The style is sleek and embossed, with rapid, commercial-style editing and a constantly uplifting score. Executive producer Forest Whitaker lends his authoritative voice to the grandiose narration. Director T. C. Johnstone (Hearing Everett) never misses an opportunity to emphasize the incredible odds stacked against the team, or to hint at what could be done if Project Rwanda had more money.
This overt missionary work doesn’t suggest, in and of itself, a lack of artistic integrity. Steve James was chiefly concerned with bolstering the profile of a Chicago-area nonprofit when he made 2011’s The Interrupters, yet because James also wove an intimate, devastating portrait of inner-city violence, it was a standout documentary. A film’s quality should be measured not by its agenda’s transparency, but by its narrative heft.
And the narrative is the problem with Rising From Ashes. Johnstone gives little agency to the people Project Rwanda professes to be helping. Even with a six-year filming period and access to the cycling team, Johnstone (who also edited the film) still speeds past his subjects faster than they do their competitors. Viewers meet them only in short spurts, and learn little about their backgrounds, or what drew them to the sport. They are adults with families, who escaped from hell as young men and lived much of their lives in abject poverty, yet they rarely have the opportunity to speak on their own behalf. One of the few concrete facts that emerges about Niyonshuti, the only one of about a dozen on the team to make it to the Olympics, is that he lost 60 family members in the genocide. Through the film, the genocide comes to define him, to take ownership of his existence and, by extension, his athletic accomplishments.
Johnstone’s decision to relegate the cyclists to the background makes even less sense, compared to who he puts in the foreground. Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the white, silver-haired Team Rwanda coach, was the first American to race in the Tour de France back in 1981. He is also a convicted felon who pled guilty to child molestation in 2002, a crime he refers to at one point in the film as “stuff that happened.” The vast majority of the story is told through his lens.
The movie deals with Boyer’s crime briefly and awkwardly; a 2009 Bicycling magazine article gives a much more incisive, fairly damning account. He joined Team Rwanda after his eight-month jail stint because his friend and fellow cyclist Tom Ritchey heads the charity.
It should have been obvious that Boyer is the wrong person to anchor the story, for reasons that go beyond his personal history. He talks in an eerie, passionless manner, and appears reluctant to be the center of attention. He openly admits to knowing nothing about the genocide before moving to the country, and exhibits little desire to learn. In a particularly flummoxing segment, he insists he understands what it’s like for Rwandans when foreign charities flee the country, because he went years without seeing his father as a boy.
A movement-building documentary operates under a different playbook than other documentaries. To its funders, the fact of its existence as a rallying cry trumps its substance as a film. Johnstone has fulfilled his mission’s two most basic requirements: that the movie be feature-length, and that it spread the gospel of Project Rwanda. But he did so while operating under the troubling assumption that all it takes to gain new supporters is 82 minutes of Americans talking about Africans.