There’s nothing that Waad Al-Kateab – the citizen-journalist turned Oscar-nominated director of For Sama – needs to do to make her latest documentary more affecting. The resilience and strength of character of the athletes she films competing for the Refugee Team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics reaches for your heart and gives it a good twist. The team was first introduced at the Rio Games in 2016 in response to the refugee crisis and gives athletes a scholarship to pay for living costs and training – as well as a flag to compete under.
And what a team they are. Kimia Alizadeh Zonoozi was 18 when she became Iran’s first female summer Olympic medallist, winning a bronze in Taekwondo at Rio. But she couldn’t bear to keep parroting the propaganda she was ordered to spew by the state: that men and women are equal in Iran, that black is white. She now lives in Germany. Unbelievably, her first opponent in Tokyo is her best friend and former teammate, Iran’s Nahid Kiani Chandeh.
One of the individuals featured is Cyrille Tchatchet, a weightlifter known for his gentle demeanor and large thighs. After participating in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Cyrille became fearful for his safety in his home country of Cameroon. He spent two months living on the streets in Brighton and was on the brink of suicide when he saw a Samaritans poster and called for help. The police arrived and were able to talk him down from the edge of a cliff. Other athletes featured include Saeid Fazloula, a canoeist from Iran, Wael Fawaz Al-Farraj, a Taekwondo athlete and Syrian refugee, and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, a runner from South Sudan. Despite facing unimaginable trauma and disruptions to their training, these athletes have still achieved success at the highest level of their sports.
The movie serves as a strong counter to the belief that refugees only burden resources. For instance, Cyrille, who became a mental health nurse after receiving asylum in the UK, expresses his desire to contribute to his community. During the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, he had the opportunity to carry the Olympic flag alongside other athletes who served their countries during the pandemic. He is truly a hero.