By Chris Chivers
Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamuduka and Pardon Taguzu. The names of these four Zimbabwean refugees are familiar to those who have spent time in South Africa’s Cape Town City. These are the same refugees who found jobs at some of the city’s top restaurants and then went on to become sommeliers and were so good at it that they competed with the best in the world as Team Zimbabwe at the 2017 World Wine Tasting Championships.
That year they came twenty-third out of twenty-four teams, trouncing only Italy. But the next year, they moved above nine countries, among them some of the best in the world.
The story has been made into what, on the face of it, is one of the most heart-warming documentary of the year, Blind ambition.
They are all terrifically likeable.
Whether it’s Marvlin we see, raised in a Pentecostal Church – and hence a teetotaller – joking that as Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine, it must be alright for him to drink it.
How about Joseph who has collected Zimbabwean refugees from a Cape Town street corner to give them a day’s work – and pass on the blessings he has received. He has created his online platform and education programme for starter sommeliers, Somm on Call.
Then there is also Pardon, often teased for his height, who has now set up his own wine-importing business in Amsterdam.
Lastly, we have also read of Tinashe who has rather admitted that he’d never eaten even a gooseberry let alone had any concept of what most aromatics are but has since gone on to create his own first wine vintage.
There’s a deep honesty in the portrayal of the men which is hugely liberating and affecting.
Beyond the delight of their characters – each is the sort of person you’d simply love to meet – there’s the wonderfully reflective way in which they enable us to sense the pain and cost of their journeys.
The family footage both in Zimbabwe and in South Africa is a heart-warming mix of daily struggles, laughter and love.
The Cape Town footage made me so homesick I simply wanted to dash to the airport and get on the next flight! But none of the beauty here – either of the people involved or the landscape – can mask the reality of the 2008 political unrest that gave rise to the men – and in some cases, their partners and families – fleeing Zim for South Africa.
I remember being in Harare during some of the worst of the turmoil.
Seeing cash depreciate by the hour, and people wheelbarrowing their savings about local markets. Spotting shops with two tomatoes, a pair of boxers, a candle, a tin of peas, a bottle of shampoo and little else on row after row of shelves.
The aggressiveness with which I was interrogated on a street corner by a late teenaged policeman – themselves shaking with fear through the obvious pressure put on them by their superiors to intimidate everyone.
The film touches on all this with a deftness that somehow makes it all the more real. Whether it’s Joseph describing the gratitude he feels to minister Paul Verryn and the amazing ministry of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg offered to flee Zimbabwean migrants at the time – packed like sardines onto pews and even staircases – and unable to resist tears falling down his face as he recalls this welcome but also the constant threat of violence he and hundreds of thousands of others experienced in cities like Johannesburg or Cape Town at the time.
Tinashe, whose rootedness in the rural Zim landscape, frames the whole narrative and leads to the creation of his own Kumusha wines – Kumasha being Shona for ‘your roots, home, origins’ – the film doesn’t shy away from some pretty big and still pressing issues.
There’s an undercurrent of the xenophobia Zimbabweans suffered – which has morphed into other strains within South Africa since.
There’s the obvious whiteness of the upper echelons of the world of wine.
As I watched I couldn’t help reflecting that for hundreds of years so many wine estate workers have been paid in wine – and endemic alcoholism thereby increased considerably – by racism that is still palpable in the industry.
Yet how British wine specialist, Jancis Robinson – who started the crowd-funding to enable the four to compete in 2017 World Championships – and expatriate French sommelier, expatriate Jean Vincent Ridon, openly admits this reality – and uses their influence, skills and leverage to help the fledgling sommeliers to overcome this, creates a real feeling of that much overused but elusive concept – transformation.
The very underratedness of the film is perhaps its greatest achievement.
As the four men blind taste twelve bottles at the world championship the viewer recalls that this is at one level a film about four guys who knew nothing about wine had tasted it, in one case hated it at first, in another woke up the next morning with the mother of all hang-overs, yet who climbed to the top of a profession in which hitherto they would have had no place. But this isn’t a remake of Cool Runnings, the 1993 hit film in which four Jamaicans who have never seen snow, dream of becoming bob-sleighers and with the help of a disgraced former champion trying to redeem himself, go all out for Olympic glory.
The narrative parallels are there for sure. Not least, is the strong comic element when the sommeliers enlist a French coach and former world champion himself – the somewhat eccentric and irascible Denis Garret – who proves to be so deaf that when he writes down their choices of grape, vintage and country, he at one point mistakes Austria for Australia!
But Blind ambition is much more than its title would suggest.
Indeed, a literal reading would be highly misleading. This film isn’t about ambition or blindness. It’s about a spell-binding belief in that transformation which can only, in the end, be described as transcendence itself.
Chivers teaches religion and philosophy at UCL Academy, London. He was formerly canon precentor of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town