Review: Men in The Arena (2017)

Men in the Arena (2017)Men in the Arena comes to your screen in the time of the xenophobic Trump Administration. It took over 3 years for Writer-Director J.R. Biersmith to deliver his tale of 2 young Somalian footballers, whose steadfast friendship and soccer skills are crucial in bringing them to the USA.

With Trump’s travel ban, Men in the Arena is even more timely today. Biersmith gives us a window into everyday life in a failed state struggling with Islamic terrorism. Somalis love their soccer, but the terror group Al-Shabab has ruined the national Mogadishu Stadium and used it for atrocities.

For Somalia to even field a national team for the CECAFA 2013 tournament is an accomplishment. Many of the players hope to be noticed in the CECAFA Cup and recruited to Europe or America. This is where Biersmith first meets Saadiq and Sa’ad.

However, the tournament is held 2 months after Al-Shabab has attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi. In Kenya, Somali migrants are now regarded with suspicion and routinely rounded up and arrested. Saadiq, the first Somali to play for the Kenyan AFC Leopards, is released by the team. Stereotyped as terrorists, pirates, and refugees, leaving Somalia becomes even more problematic.

In a population of over 10 million, more than 1 million Somalians have been displaced. Most become refugees in other countries. Many are afraid to go home and be targeted by Al-Shabab. In the case of Saadiq and Sa’ad, participating in the film and speaking out against the terrorists puts their lives in danger and also qualifies them for U.S. asylum. But the process takes as long as the film. The documentary is thus a window into the chaotic path to America, or more specifically, in getting out of Africa.

The soccer in the film includes games from CECAFA (unfortunately Somalia went scoreless), shots of the crowd, and practices. Since Saadiq was part of the FC Dallas academy for a while, you can see how these MLS coaches run their practices and how they offer a contract.

For his first feature-length documentary, Director Biersmith has put his heart, soul and resources into these two men and their story. By putting a face on the Somali plight, perhaps more Americans can be inspired to advocate for humanity.

Note: Somalian actor Barkhad Abdi, who played the surviving pirate in the Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips, is interviewed several times.

In English and Somali
@SoccerMovieMom Rating = 7

Released: 2017-04-11 (USA iTunes Amazon)
Director: J.R. Biersmith on Twitter
Stars: Saadiq Mohamed, Sa’ad Hussein, Barkhad Abdi
Watch the Trailer