A story of survival, a human rights tale and a sports journey

In 2012, a Somali teenager was punished for speaking out against Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda. “He just said, ‘I want to get an education; I don’t want to be a boy soldier’—and for that, they… publicly amputated his arm and leg,” recalls filmmaker J.R. Biersmith, who heard the story on NPR’s Fresh Air. For months, the tale haunted him.

“Somalia’s been a mess for a really long time,” Biersmith, a 2002 Bradley University graduate, explains. A journalist by trade, he spent half a year researching the war-torn country, seeking a story—a way to present Somalia in a different light. What he found changed his life.

Sa’ad and Saadiq
Biersmith’s debut documentary, Men in the Arena, follows the path of Sa’ad and Saadiq—two young Somali football players—and the challenges they face chasing their dreams in a country rife with violence. Banned for years by Al-Shabaab, football is life in Somalia: everybody watches, and every child grows up playing. The players on the Somalia national team are heroes, bringing hope to a country desperate for it.

“When we turn on the news, we often hear about Somalia being a hotspot for terrorism… but rarely, if ever, do we see Somalia through the eyes of its greatest athletes, born in its darkest hours,” Biersmith says. “By focusing on the national team, the relationship of two of its best players, and the shared dream for peace, we hope the Somali people—and viewers around the world—will be inspired by the light emanating from these young stars.”

At a private screening at the Peoria Riverfront Museum in May, Biersmith announced he hopes to have the film ready to hit the festival circuit later this year, and eventually, bring it back to east Africa. “These guys are famous back home. A lot of people in Mogadishu idolize them, and… young people there need heroes to look up to.” Though Al-Shabaab was forced out of the city two years ago, it’s still launching attacks, he adds, recruiting uneducated children for suicide missions.

“We want to take the film back to Somalia so the kids… can say, ‘Look! Sa’ad and Saadiq are soccer players! We want to get our education, too. Why, in a million years, would we want to set off a suicide bomb?’”

The Road Less Traveled
In the meantime, Biersmith is seeking funding to wrap up post-production as he positions the film to gain traction. “It’s really about creating a space in which we can properly share the story,” he explains. “I’m learning, after three years of working on this film, that [documentaries] are tough. Not just tough to make, but tough to sell. It’s hard to open up the story and get an audience.” And that’s only part of the challenge.

“By agreeing to do this film, [Sa’ad and Saadiq] are done if they go back home,” he explains. “They’d become immediate targets. I think that’s a really brave sacrifice.”

Sa’ad, who was granted asylum during filming, moved to the U.S. in March. A few weeks ago, he attended his first day of school—ever—at the age of 23. While Saadiq, 20, awaits word on his own asylum request, he’s attending school on a visa he received in 2014 to play soccer for FC Dallas. Both men hope to play professionally one day, but for now, they are prioritizing their education. They currently reside with Biersmith’s family in St. Louis. a&s

To learn more about the film or how to contribute, visit meninthearena.com.Biersmith, a Bradley alum, returned to Peoria with Sa’ad and Saadiq in May for a private screening of Men in the Arena. Afterward, they took part in a Q&A session.