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Originally published Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 3:05 PM

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‘Rising from Ashes’: Cycling toward hope, redemption

A movie review of “Rising from Ashes,” essentially a sports documentary with a heart. This film looks at the creation and training of a cycling team comprised of Rwandan men who survived their country’s 1994 genocide.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘Rising from Ashes,’ a documentary narrated by Forest Whitaker. Directed by T.C. Johnstone, from a screenplay by Johnstone and Gregg Helvey. 80 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains some disturbing archival images of genocide). In English and Kinyarwanda, with English subtitles. Seven Gables.

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Essentially a sports documentary with the look and feel of an ESPN program, “Rising from Ashes” nevertheless has broad, inspirational appeal on a human level.

Shot over six years by T.C. Johnstone and narrated by Forest Whitaker, the film follows the fortunes of several young, aimless Rwandan men as they gradually transform into a team of competitive cyclists ultimately vying for a spot at the 2012 Olympics.

Reaching for that improbable goal is a long, arduous process that demands not only discipline and determination, but also coming to terms with a haunting, bloody past. These racers are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda that resulted in more than 500,000 gruesome deaths in 1994.

Johnstone interviews the team and discovers that, as children, all suffered enormous losses during the country’s bloodbath. The most gifted racer, Adrien Niyonshuti, alone lost 60 relatives.

Johnstone thoughtfully includes a useful summary of the Rwandan atrocities, which was rooted long ago in European colonization and a racist division of the native population into an unwieldy, inevitably explosive caste system. The cycling team actually comprises individuals who once would have been enemies, making reconciliation an important theme in “Rising.”

Equally stirring in this story is the power of redemption. Among other things, “Rising” is about the salvation of a man who opens once-impossible opportunities for Niyonshuti and the others. That figure is cycling legend Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France.

Derailed by a crime that sent him to prison, Boyer was offered the opportunity to reinvent himself in Rwanda, a country he knew little about. The film portrays him as an initially cautious coach whose devotion grows over time. Boyer’s tough-love approach teaches the teammates to push past pain and become world-class competitors.

The healing implications of Boyer’s strategy are not lost on the athletes, one of whom says suffering for a good cause — as opposed to Rwanda’s historic tragedy — is a new and liberating experience.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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