Review: Blind Ambition

Robert Coe and Warwick Ross’s subtly effective documentary about four Zimbabwe emigrants to South Africa walks a careful line in explicating the men’s difficulities in adjusting to new lives in a place fraught with risks for outsiders—doubly so in a country like South Africa, which retains many elements of its racist heritage while also throwing up economic obstacles for newcomers in general. The two filmmakers present the economic crisis in Zimbabwe as more than just an impetus to seek better circumstances. Moving was a life-and-death decision for these four men, some of whom had to leave behind family to make a truly treacherous journey to a place where they were not welcome but which then knew needed laborers.

But after these matters are neatly presented, the movie becomes almost carefree in its depiction of the men’s lives as they slowly settle in and adjust (thanks in no small part to the churches they join), and that brings us to what these four men have in common. All ended up in the service industy, specifically high-end restaurants where they had to learn from scratch how to please well-off customers, initially as waiters. As the title suggests, they made the most of whatever opportunities arrived, even if they involved understanding something totally outside their lived experience, and that’s how they all became sommeliers. As one tells the camera, when he first tasted wine he was grossed out. “I didn’t like it,” he says, “I was sick for two days.” But when he realized how important wine was to the customers he served, and how they depended on their waiter to recommend something good to go with their meals, he learned as much as he could, as did the other three subjects of the film. They studied and became good at their jobs, so much so that they eventually banded together to represent South Africa—a major wine-producing country, by the way—at the World Wine Tasting Championship in France. That South Africa would be represented not only by four Black men, but four Black migrants, did not escape the purview of the world of wine-tasting, and eventually their efforts were recognized by experienced coaches who offered to help them attain their dream of traveling to Europe to compete. Understanding what their profile at the contest can do for Africa’s image, they dub themselves Team Zimbabwe, thus representing not just a continent, but a phenomenon. 

If the movie loses some of its dramatic mojo in the second half, it’s mainly because Coe and Ross have no choice but to sit back and allow matters to run their course. The team adjusts with comic determination to the whims of their eccentric white coaches, struggles to generate funding, meets with the usual culture clash issues in France, and generally have a good time (without getting drunk, since none of the four like alcohol for that reason). Occasionally, one or more members wax philosophical about the meaning of wine, which to them is impressive because each bottle is a link to a specific piece of land at a specific point in time (the contest essentially boils down to blind-tasting wines and determining where they are from and what vintage), thus, in a way, mirroring their own situations. The movie doesn’t even have to try to be stirring and heartwarming.

In English, French and Shona. Opens Dec. 16 in Tokyo at Huma Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinemart (03-3352-5645).

Blind Ambition home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Third Man Films Pty Ltd.

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