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.
Then there is Cyrille Tchatchet, a gentle-mannered weightlifter (with thighs the circumference of an ancient oak). Cyrille walked out of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, fearing for his safety back home in Cameroon. He spent two months living rough in Brighton, and was standing on the edge of a cliff contemplating suicide when he spotted a Samaritans poster and called. Two police cars arrived and talked him down. We also meet Saeid Fazloula, a canoeist originally from Iran, Taekwondo athlete and Syrian refugee Wael Fawaz Al-Farraj and South Sudanese runner Anjelina Nadai Lohalith. They have all experienced trauma on a scale few of us can imagine, their training has been disrupted, yet they’ve reached the pinnacle of elite sports.
The film is a powerful antidote to the narrative that refugees are nothing but a drain on resources. Take Cyrille, who trained as a mental health nurse after being granted asylum in the UK. “I felt I needed to give something back to my community,” he says. At the opening ceremony in Tokyo he shared the honour of carrying the Olympic flag with other athletes who’d served their countries during the pandemic. What a hero.
• We Dare to Dream is released on 1 December in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.