Documentary Review: Zimbabwean refugees turn Sommeliers, thanks to “Blind Ambition”

“Blind Ambition” is a simple, straightforward non-fiction film about what we journalists call a “man bites dog” story. It’s about something wholly unexpected and unusual, odd and cute.

We meet a quartet of Zimbabwean refugees who fled hardship to South Africa, got jobs waiting tables and started the process of mastering fine wine at the dining establishments where they work.

They became sommeliers, wine stewards at their restaurants. And when they were good enough at it to at least earn consideration for membership on South Africa’s World Wine Tasting Championships team, they took a suggestion and formed their own Team Zim instead.

A poor, corruptly-run economic basket case country — Zimbabwe — found itself represented at the wine-identifying competition among sommeliers from around the world, held at Chateau de Gilly in France in 2017.

So, it’s “Cool Runnings” with wine, right? Not quite. This never crosses into cutesy. It’s “uplifting,” but conventionally so, with a certain dignity surrounding it. These are, after all, “the finest palettes in Africa.”

Filmmakers Warwick Ross and Robert Coe shadow sommeliers Joseph, Marlvin, Tinashe and Pardon as they “train.” We learn of their home lives, how they landed restaurant jobs. We see hear and see snippets of their backstories, glimpse the news coverage of the chaotic, crisis-riddled last years of Robert Mugabe’s rule of Zimbabwe, the reasons these four fled. And we’re reminded of South African xenophobia, the attacks on “foreigners” that shamed the country during those days.

Wine masters, chefs, authors and others flesh out the skills they had to master and the conditions these young men had to overcome. And then we get into the nitty gritty of wine tasting, “which is not at all the same as wine-drinking,” one expert takes pains to explain.

The pragmatic value a sommelier has in a restaurant is helping diners match the “perfect” wines to their meal. In “competition,” they must show themselves to be the ultimate wine snobs, experts who can name the style, the varietal (grape), the vintage, the region and if they’re really good, the winery that bottled it.

We meet not just the Zimbabweans and the experts on refugees, Zimbabwe and wine. We’re introduced to mentors who gave them their starts, and follow them to France where their hired-by-phone French coach drags them all over wine country, from the Rhine to the Rhone, giving them an appreciation of the best the world has to offer, if nothing else.

The “blind” taste tests of competition make up the climax of the film.

There’s not a lot of “learning” about wine on the viewer’s part. As plucky and distinct as these young men are, their stories are more representative of the African refugee diaspora and its possibilities than of some “next big thing” in the wine world. South African wines are well-established. Zimbabwean wines barely known, until now. With actual home grown experts, perhaps that will change.

And thanks to the competition, in which the team tastes, studies and compares notes — debating what this or that wine is in two minute evaluations — the third act of “Blind Ambition” is livelier than the first two.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gewese, Pardon Tagazu and Tinashe Nyamudoka.

Credits: Directed by Robert Coe and Warwick Ross, scripted by Robert Coe, Paul Murphy and Madeleine Ross. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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