There was a point late into the filming of “Men in the Arena” that director and St. Louis native J.R. Biersmith realized his relationship with the documentary’s subjects was fundamentally altered. A journalist by trade, this was a different challenge than he was used to — but then again, everything in Somalia, where Biersmith had traveled to shoot the documentary about the national soccer team, was a challenge unlike anything he was used to.
Saadiq Mohhamed, one of the stars of the team, had been arrested in Nairobi during a crackdown on Somalis living in Kenya, where he was playing for a league team.
“He texted me over WhatsApp, ‘J.R., the police got me while I was walking to watch a soccer game,’” Biersmith said. “I thought: I’m the first person he reached out to? Something has changed in our relationship.”
Biersmith had been filming Saadiq and his best friend Sa'ad Hussein for several months, using their experiences on the underfunded, newly recreated Somali National Football Team as a lens through which to view the impact of Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group which has wreaked havoc on Somalia since the mid-2000s.
Biersmith, who previously worked at a newspaper in Florida, felt called to Somalia to help elevate the conversation about broken politics and warfare that has plagued the country for decades and sent refugees fleeing from the country.
“It was the national team, Somalia was just getting a recognized government and FIFA had just installed turf in one of the national stadiums,” Biersmith told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “It felt like that was the one cultural piece that was working.”
The story of two rivals-turned-friends, Sa'ad and Saadiq, who were playing on this national team with no formal training, practicing on a dirt field for a team that hadn’t scored a goal since 2011, was an irresistible hook. The team is consistently ranked 204 out of 209 FIFA teams, but Biersmith saw in the players and the team’s fans an indefatigable spirit he wanted to capture.
“You see this place that you imagined was beautiful but it still has this special splendor … even in the chaos and the decay, there’s something beautiful. I think it is buttressed by these people who live in these structures that are torn apart but there’s this smile, this resilience, this energy on the ground.”
Understanding the impact of Al-Shabaab
While Al-Shabaab had been pushed out of Mogadishu, where the Somali National Team practices, the terrorist group still holds vast tracts of the Somali countryside, where Sa'ad grew up with his family. At one point in the film, you learn that no member of the Somali National Football Team has escaped the terror unscathed. Players lost parents, sisters, brothers, aunts to the horrific tactics of the group. In Sa'ad’s case, he barely escaped from their clutches alive after surviving a public lashing in his home village.
The group has a particular hatred of soccer and, for a while, the sport was banned in the country, before AMISOM reclaimed Mogadishu, the capital city. Those who are caught affiliated with soccer are duly punished.
“Soccer allows culture and they can’t control that,” Biersmith said. “That’s the piece in filmmaking that I thought was so important. The National Theatre is bombed in 2012 and it is starting to just feel like an institution that is offering some cultural value ... it gets bombed and the president of [Somalia’s] Olympic committee and [national] football federation get killed in that same attack. Soccer is like the next step of culture evolving, people getting excited and rallying around something, so they tried to ban it.”
Making a vulnerable documentary
One of the greatest challenges of the documentary was getting Saadiq and Sa'ad to open up — both about soccer and about their experiences with Al-Shabaab. Because of soccer’s place in the eyes of the terrorist organization, speaking openly about it is asking for trouble.
Biersmith said that the team members are largely numb to this fear because it has persisted so long.
“Fear has been suppressed,” Biersmith said. “The hardest part is that they don’t even want to say the word. As a filmmaker, you’re trying to probe and push and get them to share their story. They don’t want to. They are scared. That’s the greatest challenge of the film: Getting them to be vulnerable, trust me. How are you going to trust the white guy from America when you hear these stories for years, like, can we trust these people? They have an instilled incredible fear, to the point they can’t speak. Their sacrifice is so humbling and courageous … even though they don’t realize how courageous it is.”
That’s why, when Saadiq texted him about his unwarranted arrest, Biersmith knew his relationship had to change from the typical, objective documentarian, to a friend who was looking out for Saadiq’s future. So Biersmith started looking for a chance for Saadiq to try out soccer in America.
Finding a new home in the United States, St. Louis
The process was lengthy, as there are already nearly 1 million Somalis displaced near the region with a further 1.1 million displaced within in Somalia. Somalis are the second largest African group trying to make the deadly trip across the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees wasn’t even able to take a meeting, but Biersmith’s personal advocacy for Saadiq eventually worked and he was able to obtain a U.S. visa to go train at FC Dallas Academy.
Now, Saadiq has found a new home in St. Louis, where he is living with Biersmith’s sister while waiting to find out his eligibility to play soccer for Saint Louis University, where he can also obtain an education.
“There’s an African flair, energy,” Biersmith said. “It’s undeniable what he causes you to feel when you’re in his presence. As hard as it is for him to make this adjustment in America and the pressure from home, I said: don’t ever forget how you make people feel.”
While Saadiq was settling into life in America his friend Sa'ad remained in Somalia. Recently, he was able to join Saadiq in St. Louis through a refugee visa. Their reunion was documented in a well-read Sports Illustrated article that published in late March.
"[Sa'ad] risked his life to share his story for this film," Biersmith said.
His path has diverted away from soccer, though he still plays recreationally with Saadiq, as he devotes himself to learning the English language and finding a job here through the International Institute.
“It’s really been beyond touching to see this community say that these two risked their lives to tell their stories, they’re victims of terrorism too … and to see not just my sister but her friends and family who have gone beyond,” Biersmith said. “They’re not a burden on the system, the community is stepping up to support them. Every time you’re in their space you realize this city is really special. That’s an amazing thing they inject into a room. It is fun to see St. Louis embrace them that way.”
The documentary “Men in the Arena” is in the final round of editing and Biersmith will first self-distribute the movie with limited theater releases. He hopes to pair up with MLS cities to show the movie and to sell the documentary to a network from there. Because of Saadiq, Saad and his own ties to the area, the movie, of course, will also have a St. Louis release too.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.