Warwick Ross on ‘Blind Ambition’

Blind Ambition chronicles the journey of four Zimbabwean refugees turned sommeliers as they train for and compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships. They are Pardon Taguzu, Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese and Tinashe Nyamudoka: Team Zimbabwe. We spoke with co-director Warwick Ross about his extraordinary documentary, which is in theatres now.

The film opens with a member of Team Zimbabwe, Tinashe, describing the Shona word “Kumusha”. Could you talk us through Kumusha and its importance to the film?

What is “home” to displaced people? Is it where they are building their new life? Is it the home they left and dream of returning to? When we first met and interviewed the four ZimSomms, it was Tinashe who talked of “Kumusha”, which simply translated means “home”. It forms a strong theme in the film – the desire to return to an idealized place – not the place of hardship and struggle, but a place of peace and possibilities. A place where your roots are, where you feel connected to the earth.

We realized early on that the theme of “origins” was an important one to explore. When we asked Joseph, Tinashe, Pardon and Marlvin: “Now that you are successful sommeliers, where in the world would you most like to work and further your career? – Paris? London? New York? – They all responded “Zimbabwe”. They each have an umbilical connection to their homeland, to “Kumusha”. It also seemed to us that this strong identification and pride in their homeland is what drove them to succeed – to prove to the world that Zimbabweans have the tenacity and talent and dedication to stand on the world stage. But home will always be Zimbabwe.

There were some fascinating intricacies to the team’s work; the use of LED lights to examine a wine’s colour or the palate-killing effects of adrenaline, for instance. As I understand it, you’re a vigneron yourself, were there any insights into blind tasting or the competition that left an impression on you?

I think the most intriguing aspect of watching Team Zim train and compete was how they used their own cultural references and touchstones to their advantage. In the traditional, western world of wine, we have various techniques to identify wines and we use fruits that we are familiar with to help us identify different varietals – blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrant for example. But for our four Zimbabweans, who had never tasted any of these fruits, it was necessary to draw from their own backgrounds and experience. When identifying certain wines they would reference their own indigenous fruits like Nhunguru and Nhengeni and would even use the word “Gavi” which means ‘fresh tree bark’ to identify a wine from Italy.

This technique made us realise that the sometimes impenetrable wine world and it’s Eurocentric glossary of terms can be breached by all those who are resourceful and prepared to harness their own cultural reference points.

Blind Ambition is much more humorous than some might expect from a documentary on a subject considered as refined as wine tasting is, and even your previous film, Red Obsession, aired on the side of sobering and informative throughout. What was it like highlighting and finding humour in the edit on this film? Did you have a direction in mind for the uplifting tone after speaking to the team?

When making a documentary the narrative is informed by the unfolding story threads that reveal themselves during interviews and experiences along the journey. We don’t dictate the story – in many ways, the story dictates to us. As such, there never was an intention to make the film humorous or to create or manipulate tone. However, after embarking on the journey with the four, it soon became evident that they would often find humour in situations and so that is reflected in the film itself.

In terms of the “uplifting” tone of the film, we had no idea going in that there would be so many people by the end of the journey who would be so inspired by what they had achieved. And it wasn’t tied to how they performed or where they placed in the Competition – rather, it was about their own personal triumphs in managing to get to the competition in the first place – the determination, application and, quite frankly, the bravery to challenge the status quo and to overcome the significant racial, economic, religious and cultural barriers to entry into the very white, conventional and traditional world of wine.

blind ambition warwick ross

I’m sure you’ve been asked about or reminded of your film’s similarity to Cool Runnings many times, so let me ask you if there is a significant difference between the two you’d like to stress?

Yes, we do get asked this question quite a lot. There are some obvious parallels with Cool Runnings, superficially that is. Four black guys who tackle impossible odds to compete at the highest level in their chosen field. But Cool Runnings, although based on real events, was largely fictional and was scripted and designed as a comedy. We had no script or preconceived notions as filmmakers going in on Blind Ambition, as to what the story would ultimately be. What unfolded over the course of two years, as we followed our four Zimbabweans, determined the structure and the tone of the film.

I think the biggest difference between Cool Runnings and Blind Ambition is that we touch on the deeper themes of displacement, discrimination and xenophobia as our four protagonists attempt to create new lives for themselves in a foreign country. And their determination to survive and succeed.

As a documentarian having a subject as eccentric as Denis waltz his way into your film must have been exciting?

Denis was a gift! An unpredictable agent of chaos, who we knew would create both drama and comedy. He is loved and hated by audiences. Watching him inadvertently undermine the prospects of Jo, Marlvin, Tinashe and Pardon was excruciating to watch – and hugely disappointing for the four. However, unexpectedly, they do not blame him for their performance. He has a big heart and is endlessly generous to his friends – traits that make him hard not to like.

As the team and their coaches trace their road to the competition, there are several asides into their family life, their view of each other, anecdotes, etc. When conducting interviews, did you have broad conversations or ask interviewees their thoughts on a planned set of subjects? Why did you conclude it would be best for the documentary to forgo narration and instead capture the participants having their say?

Our interviews with Joseph, Tinashe, Pardon, and Malvern were extensive and conducted over a two year period. During that time we managed to gain their trust and so they opened up to us with very personal and sometimes painful experiences and memories. Our lines of questioning were really drawn from an initial set of conventional questions and then developed into many different areas depending on the answers we were given and how comfortable our subjects were to open the door on their personal lives.

Initially we were open to the idea of including narration in the film – but it soon became clear that the strong, clear and powerful voices of our four protagonists were the only voices an audience would need to hear. They told their story far more powerfully and eloquently than any scripted narration could have achieved.

The moment where Joseph picks up two men in search of work by the side of the road, and essentially conducts his own interview with fellow Zimbabweans whose stories reflect his own, is remarkable. How did this come about?

Joseph mentioned to us one day that he needed some workers to help him bottle and label his new wines. When we asked where he would go for such help he described what he called the “traffic lights” – an industrial intersection where Zimbabwean refugees, desperate for money and hoping to be employed for any task for extremely minimal wages, would stand and wait in the hot sun, often all day long, hoping to be chosen by prospective employers. Most would wait in vain.

What struck us most that day, was the haunted look of desperation on those faces. Faces that not only told the story of Joseph’s plight, years before, but the ongoing plight of millions of Zimbabwean refugees who continue to face discrimination, deprivation and violence every day.

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One of the team’s core motivations was a desire to demonstrate Zimbabwe’s untapped potential by representing their country. Have you heard any particularly heartwarming feedback from Zimbabweans inspired by the team or the film?

After the competition, and despite the overwhelming disappointment they were feeling, the four guys began receiving text messages from friends, family and fellow Zimbabweans who were all inspired by what they had achieved. It was clear that their achievement had little to do with the place they had achieved, but the far greater achievement of placing Zimbabwe on the world stage for all to see. This was a rare good news story about Zimbabwe, in a sea of endless bad news and it made all Zims proud to be Zimbabwean.

Did you consider reuniting with the team to document their journey past the 2017 competition? How did you know when their story, for the purposes of the documentary, had come to an end?

We did document the team beyond the 2017 competition – We followed them the next year to the 2018 competition where they managed to climb nine places, defeating some of the most well known and successful competitors, including the USA, the UK, Italy and Spain. After the 2018 competition, the four decided it was time to pass the baton onto younger Zimbabwean aspirants who would carry the torch to the 2019 competition. Joseph, Tinashe, Pardon and Marlvin also decided at this time to pursue new career paths. This felt like a natural progression for them and a natural end point for our narrative.

The African premiere of Blind Ambition was originally set sometime around March 2020, curbed by lockdown. Since then, the film has been on a long journey, though I’m sure bringing their story to South Africa has significance to the team. We’ve got a robust wine culture here (the premiere audience seemed particularly lively), but where is it that you feel the film has received the best reaction?

Blind Ambition has received extremely positive reactions at all festivals and countries where it has been screened, achieving Audience Awards at four festivals, Including Tribeca Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. And while the reactions have been wonderful across the board, the hometown crowd in Cape Town produced the most rousing, engaged and enthusiastic reaction of all!