Film Blind Ambition: The Refugees Who Broke the Wineglass Ceiling | Movies | Entertainment

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It was on his 29th birthday that Zimbabwean waiter Joseph Dhafana tasted his first sip of wine, a South African dry sparkling variety. “It was unpleasant, I didn’t like it,” he laughs today. “I had no idea how to describe it – now I [would] let’s say sour, astringent and fizzy. But I grew up in a culture where wine was unknown. Eleven years later, Joseph, now 40, is a successful winemaker and top sommelier who has competed in the World Blind Tasting Championships – known as the “World Olympics some wine”. At the 2017 and 2018 championships in Burgundy, France, he was a member of Zimbabwe’s first-ever team of sommeliers alongside 35-year-old Marlvin Gwese, 37-year-old Tinashe Nyamudoka and 34-year-old Pardon Taguzu.

None of them had tried the wine until they were in their twenties.

What’s even more remarkable is that all four are former refugees who left their home countries and moved to neighboring South Africa for a better life, taking whatever work they could get. . They met wine after working their way up to become waiters in Cape Town, where the hospitality industry dominates the job market.

Now their inspiring story has been told in a heartwarming new documentary, Blind Ambition, which follows the four men as they try to make a name for themselves in the elite world of wine tasting. The film’s directors, Warwick Ross and Robert Coe, connected with the team online and decided to record them as they trained for the competition.

“These guys were the only people of color. Everyone was white,” says Warwick.

“This very traditional, conservative world hadn’t really been shaken and these poor guys came to the doorstep and started knocking on the door.

“They were ready to disrupt and we found that incredibly exciting.”

Championships are a daunting prospect for the most experienced and talented oenophile.

Teams of four must correctly identify 12 wines – six whites, six reds – during a so-called blind tasting, by guessing the country, region, producer, grape variety and vintage.

They get one point for each correct answer.

Only 24 countries are competing and Zimbabwe, where wine culture is in its infancy, is not considered a serious player.

Blind Ambition stars, left to right: Joseph, Pardon, Marlvin and Tinashe (Image: free document)

Unsurprisingly, the four men have been dubbed “Cool Runnings of wine” in reference to the iconic film about Jamaica’s first-ever Olympic bobsled team.

Robert knew from the start that this was a complicated story to tell.

“There were so many layers,” he says. “Four guys from Zimbabwe who have no culture or history of drinking wine are taking part in the most elite wine tasting contest in the world – plus the refugee aspect.

Then the guys themselves were so different: Tinashe was the philosopher, Joe the serious guy, Marlvin was the prankster, and Pardon the cheeky.

Tinashe, 37, who worked at Cape Town’s prestigious restaurant, The Test Kitchen, left Zimbabwe in January 2008.

He grew up on his grandfather’s farm and loved his country.

But hyper-inflation, caused by President Robert Mugabe’s corrupt government, meant that a whole month’s salary wouldn’t even buy him a day’s bus ride.

“I worked in a supermarket and saw with my own eyes how empty the shelves were – you couldn’t even find a bar of soap,” he recalls. “Getting food was a mission in itself and surviving…it became unbearable.”

He packed up one night and left without telling anyone. He knew his relatives would try to stop him. Refugees regularly perish crossing the border illegally – some shot by police, others killed by crocodiles.

Joseph himself nearly died while fleeing Zimbabwe with his wife, Amelia.

But the couple were determined to send money home to provide a better life for their two-year-old son, left with his parents.

The couple hid in huge rail containers bound for South Africa.

Unbeknownst to the 52 people crammed into the sweltering 40C heat, the 2pm departure of the freight train had been delayed by two hours.

“The women started fainting,” Joseph recalls. “Fortunately, a member of staff was on patrol, so we heard knocking on the doors. He untied the containers, opened the doors and saw people jumping out.

Film Blind Ambition: Joseph and Pardon study wine

Film Blind Ambition: Joseph, on the left, and Pardon, on the right, study a wine (Image: free document)

Determined to try again, Joseph and Amelia boarded the 7 p.m. train and successfully crossed the border.

They heard of a Methodist church in Johannesburg offering shelter to refugees.
Today, Joseph credits Bishop Paul Verryn, who leads the church and is featured in the documentary, with saving their lives.

“I lived off street food for literally two weeks,” he says.
“A local TV camera passed in front of my face and my cousin spotted me on TV during a newscast.”

This cousin lived in a wine country near Cape Town and sent Joseph money to visit.

This led to a job as a gardener at the Baa Baa Black Sheep Restaurant and Joseph was soon promoted to dishwasher, then bartender, then waiter.

Marlvin was a computer science student, working part-time as a waiter, which is how he caught the wine bug.

His strict religious upbringing prohibits alcohol but his family accepted his vocation. “It’s just the work of God,” he says.

He met the others through Cape Town’s vast wine industry.

Pardon, former sommelier at the Aubergine restaurant, asked Joseph to teach him everything he knew. He comes from a family of academics and enjoys putting his research skills into practice.

“It’s a talent but you have to work on it,” he explains. “There is a lot of geography because you have to know the regions, the vineyards and the origins of the grapes, and it’s a science because the grape is a living organism that we are dealing with.

“It’s a complex industry and it’s only fun when you’re tasting wines, but beyond that it’s a challenge.”

Film Blind Ambition: The sommeliers deliberate

Film Blind Ambition: The four sommeliers with their competition coach, Denis Garret, center (Image: free document)

Joseph jokes about his “big nose pays the bills”, adding: “I can tell you the northern wine without tasting it sometimes…it’s a combination of a very good nose and a palate, plus I have a photographic memory.”

He decided to start a Zimbabwean team after competing in the 2015 World Blind Tasting Championships for South Africa.

The men all had talent and enthusiasm but lacked funds so they launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring them to Burgundy in France.

Donors around the world were captivated by their ambition and they raised over £8,000.

While it has an emotional heart, the award-winning documentary also offers buckets of comedy, in the form of their eccentric wine coach Denis Garret.

Widely recognized as one of France’s greatest sommeliers, he is also stubborn, hard of hearing and, in his own words, ‘irritating’.

His sometimes tense interactions with the four Zimbabweans as they deliberate over wines at high speed are a hoot.

“Filmmakers, especially documentary makers, sometimes get really lucky when the right project and the right circumstances hit you,” says Robert.

“And then add Denis to the mix. We couldn’t have made this film without him.

The four sommeliers laugh

The four sommeliers have started a new life in South Africa after fleeing Zimbabwe (Image: free document)

The camaraderie between Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon is nice to see.

“One thing that surprised us was their general optimism,” says Rob. “Despite what they faced, they had fantastic positivity and outlook on life.

“That’s why everyone wanted to kiss them.”

As for their favorite on-screen moments, Warwick says he “always gets tingles up his spine” watching Pardon talk about his mother.

A domestic worker, she raised him and his sister after his father died when he was five.

“She was a solid pillar of life,” Pardon says. “She was the mother, the father, the anchor, the only person I could ask for advice.”

She died shortly after Pardon left Zimbabwe. Today, he lives in Amsterdam with his wife and children and runs an import-export business for African wines.

“She had a real impact on my life and the way I transformed myself and it’s sad that she’s not around to enjoy the success,” he says.

“She used the last bit of money she had to buy me a ticket from Zimbabwe to South Africa.

“I was hoping she would live longer to see what she had invested in and the man I became because of her.”

One of the most moving moments in Blind Ambition is when Bishop Verryn explains why he has helped dozens of refugees, like Joseph, build a new life in a foreign land.

“The world needs to realize that migrants are not cockroaches and pests that need to be eradicated and seen as an invasion of our sacred space,” he says.

“Some of the most deeply developed and incredibly wonderful minds don’t fit what we think they belong.”

It is a poignant message.

“The story highlights that when you give someone a chance, they can shine and contribute so much to the fabric of the society they find themselves in,” adds Warwick.

I won’t spoil the story by giving the result of the tasting contest but you might need your tissues.

The four men all share a desire to return to Zimbabwe one day. Marlvin believes his native country could one day rival South Africa’s exceptional wineries on the world stage.

“Zimbabwe was not a nation of wine drinkers 20 years ago,” he says. “Now they have so much knowledge and they’ve been exposed to different cultures…I definitely see a future in growth.”

Joseph now produces his own brand, Mosi Wine and Spirits, and wants his son, now 18, to “be better than me.”

And he has this message for other refugees: “There is no goal too high. You can be where you want to be anytime you want if you put in hours of hard work and determination.

“These young people now, we pioneered all of this. We have cleared the ground for them and it is easy for them to break off a piece of bread and eat. All in all, Blind Ambition is a vintage find.

Blind Ambition will be released in theaters and on Curzon Home Cinema from August 12

About Debra D. Johnson

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