People of my generation will always remember the infamous Jamaican bobsled team. The unlikely story of four guys from the tropics competing in the 1988 Winter Olympics captured many hearts, and deservedly so.
A couple of years ago, the wine world was treated to its own version of such an underdog story, as a group of Zimbabwean sommeliers competed in the World Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy.
The journey of Tinashe Nyamudoka, Pardon Taguzu, Marlvin Gwese, and Joseph Dhafana captured in the recently released film Blind Ambition is heartwarming, inspiring, and perfectly timed in the face of a draconian crackdown on Zimbabwean immigrants taking place in South Africa at this very moment.
Nyamudoka, Taguzu, Gwese, and Dhafana are all economic refugees (what some in the US would call illegal immigrants) having fled the economic turmoil of their native Zimbabwe for the relative stability and opportunities of neighboring South Africa.
All four men not only survived their (sometimes harrowing) immigrant journeys, but diligently worked their way to becoming sommeliers in some of South Africa’s top restaurants.
After competing in South African blind tasting competitions and placing well, the four are encouraged to start their own blind tasting team for their home country, and the film follows their preparation for the global competition, telling their personal stories along the way.
The enthusiasm and passion these men bring to the subject of wine will remind even the most jaded wine drinker of that spark that grabbed each of us at some point on our wine journey. It quickly becomes impossible not to root for them as they train for the rigors of the competition.
Amidst the tasting techniques and strategies, the foibles of odd French coaches, and the personal stories of each man, the filmmakers make sure to touch on the precarious nature of the current Zimbabwean experience in South Africa.
In response to a flood of refugees fleeing a Mugabe-wrought economic disaster of several decades, South Africa has recently instituted an absolutist immigration policy with regard to Zimbabwe nationals. Beginning in June of 2023, all previously issued temporary work permits will be invalid, and all Zimbabwean immigrants without a visa will be subject to deportation.
People I spoke to on my recent visit to South Africa say employment visas are rarely issued and all but impossible to secure. It was also implied that after June 2023, it will be illegal for employers to hire anyone without proof of valid work status, meaning that any Zimbabwean who happens to lose their job after that date will find it impossible to get another one (at least legally).
While the film doesn’t directly confront these current politics, which were still evolving during the making of the film, it doesn’t shy away from the daily realities of exploitation and physical danger faced by immigrants.
Blind Ambition is far from a perfect film. It is clunky in places, and the narrative can feel tenuously linked at times, as the filmmakers try to build a richer story around the central plotline leading to the Wine Tasting Championships.
These imperfections are easy to forgive considering the film was made mid-pandemic, and despite the myriad obstacles that entailed, not least of which were restrictions preventing the Australian filmmakers from traveling at times. More than that, however, the stories and personalities of Nyamudoka, Taguzu, Gwese, and Dhafana outshine and overpower the film’s minor flaws.
News broke last week that an all-female team of Kenyan sommeliers beat Italy, Scotland, and Sweden in the same competition featured in this film. If the events captured in Blind Ambition and the personal stories of the four protagonists had no other impact but to create more teams of black and brown sommeliers striving to compete on the world’s wine stages, they would be worthy of chronicling in a film like this.
You will find the story resonates so much deeper and further than that.
Blind Ambition is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and other major streaming services as of October 1, 2022.