A documentary about the first Rwandan national cycling team. The team make a bid to make history and represent their country at the 2012 Olympic Games. Normally a privilaged white man's sport, the rag tag group of Rwandans is coached by the first American to ride in the Tour de France. They become a beacon of hope for their country, which suffered one of the world's most horrific genocides.

 

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As the title suggests, this is a redemption story. It tells you something else too: that the filmmakers here aren’t afraid of the bleedin’ obvious. Take that as special pleading, for this is the kind of movie that prompts certain critics to mobilise those air-less catch phrases like ‘feel-good’, ‘hopeful’, and ‘uplift’ in order to distract you from the salient issue: which is, it ain’t much of a movie, folks, but it sure as heck means well. Besides, it’s hard to feel good about slagging off a picture that takes as part of its subject the horrors of genocide and the courage of those left in its wake.

Shot over six years, it’s a feature length documentary that aims to portray the origins of Rwanda’s first national cycling team. That fact alone holds something deeply moving at its centre. For approximately 100 days in 1994, an estimated one million people, most of them Tutsis, were murdered by the ruling Hutus. According to one BBC report, that meant 20 percent of the population were wiped out in the slaughter, over two thirds of the country’s Tutsi people.

When the team was first formed in 2006 by one of the inventors of the mountain bike, Tom Ritchey, the recruits were drawn from Tutsis and Hutus. The narration, delivered by Forest Whitaker, sounds like he’s channeling if not God, then some other benign higher power. We’re dumped with these facts and lectured on faith, hope and charity, and reminded more than once that its competitive cycling that has converted once ‘sworn enemies’ into ‘brothers’.

For the team, coach Ritchey persuaded Jonathan Boyer to take the gig. A famed cyclist – he was the first American to compete in the Tour de France – Boyer, who likes to be called Jock, is a lean, fit, 50-something with the angular good looks of some tough-looking bird. Still, he seems haunted by some halo of sadness that’s only partly investigated. When we first meet him he’s doing it tough. He served a little time on a sex charge (referred primly here as ‘lewd conduct with a minor’). Johnstone has him confide on camera to an unhappy childhood.

The cast are shot in standard talking-heads format and these interviews feel stiff. Boyer has a tendency to declaim rather than talk, and often gets emotional, but I was left pondering what his angst looked like behind the tears. I felt in the presence of one of those new agey declarations, or worse, a post-game debrief, rather than watching a bloke talk about his feelings and experiences. As for the team, Johnstone never seems to break through. They are the story here and yet they – and their experience(s) – seems distressingly out of reach, as if they were subject to one of those cold and stony headlines that speak of Third World destruction and dysfunction. Only Adrien Niyonshuti, who had 6 brothers murdered amongst 90 relatives in the Rwandan genocide, emerges as a major figure here. (He scored a contract with South Africa’s MTN Team as a pro cyclist in 2009 and was an Olympic competitor.) There are some telling moments; I like the scene where Boyer is chewing out one of the team members for some infringement of their training regime; we get the feeling his image of calm is a bit of a put on, and I wondered what the guys on the team said about him when he wasn’t around. He later says how the team is “terrified” of him and he wouldn’t have any other way. It’s hard for any documentary to penetrate the collective psyche of a subculture or a family or a sports team, but the point is if Johnstone had such an ambition, it didn’t make the cut, and that makes the film feel inconsequential almost to the point of offence.

So what does the film do? Well, we learn lots of cycling minutiae, and that Boyer finds Rwanda’s bananas the best in the world. We learn, too, that Johnstone doesn’t really find a way to coherently structure the film’s co-mingling of racing action, history, and personal anecdote. As any cycling fan knows, it’s a great sport to watch from the armchair; but Johnstone doesn’t have the coverage to convey the excitement of competition. Indeed, Johnstone and co.’s editing falls into a tedious format early on where interviews are juxtaposed with cutaways to spinning wheels and tortured faces of the racers straining against the continent’s formidable hills, the heat and their own fatigue.

It’s a movie, like Rocky, with an ultimate contest in sight – here it’s the 2012 Olympics – but there’s no tension, no suspense and nothing to power the story. (The pace is glacial mostly because there’s no sense of where the film is headed for the first half-hour or so, which is lethal in a pic that runs under 90 minutes.) Its style is part-National Geographic travelogue, part-sports TV info, and they form a pair of dead hands that smother the life out of material that seems – at least in cold print – impossible to crush.

In the end, it seems to be more about Boyer and his personal mission rather than a story of the redemptive power of community. In that way, this tale out of Africa is colonised by a very American cult of personality.

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Details

M
1 hour 19 min
In Cinemas 08 May 2014,

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