When I began working on this film, I could have never imagined the great struggles and joys or the incredible highs and lows that would lie ahead.
The project started when I heard a story about a Somali teenager who refused to join the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab and paid for it with a public amputation in the national soccer stadium. Michelle Shephard’s work on this story galvinized the Somali diaspora in Canada and their efforts helped him find refuge in Norway. I couldn’t shake his story or the realization that this was possibly the same stadium American forces ran to in the film adaptation of the bestselling book, Black Hawk Down. Mogadishu Stadium was the former home of Somalia’s beloved national soccer team and today it is a war-ravaged symbol of a nation long considered the most hostile and failed state in the world. I wanted to make a film about the young men without the guns, the young men who’ve known nothing but war but dream of peace and playing soccer on their own soil.
In the summer of 2013, I met the president of the Somalia football federation in Tahiti for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. Two months later, I traveled to Nairobi with co-producer/editor, Brian Bellinkoff, to meet the Somali national team while they competed in the oldest tournament in Central and East Africa. As I started to get to know the players, I was struck by their personal stories of terror, stories that sounded more like nightmares masked by positivity and love for country.
The first night we handed out a questionnaire. That’s the night we met Saadiq. He asked if his friend could just talk to us about his story. I’ll never forget the beads of sweat dripping from Sa’ad’s head as he described being arrested by Al-Shabab for listening to music. After the first match ended, we knew we wanted to build the film around Saadiq and Sa’ad. At the time, I couldn’t foresee just how difficult it would be to capture their stories. Saadiq lived in a complicated Nairobi neighborhood, Sa’ad lived in Mogadishu outside of the green zone, and the Somali football archives were completely destroyed in 2010.
I sent Sa’ad a tablet, and Saadiq borrowed an iPad to make video diaries. Together we worked through busted phone connections and spotty internet to connect over Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype before I made the trip to Mogadishu. In late August, 2014, Saadiq came to America, and we suddenly had unlimited access to him on safe ground. We continued our story with Sa’ad through broken up calls and difficult shoots in Mogadishu and Afgoye.
My hope for the film is that it provides a window into the lives of the Somali people, the struggles they face in a field of terror, and the bravery that two young men command in demanding a better future for themselves. I am humbled by the trust they placed in me and the opportunity to call them my friends, my family. At the end of a long journey together, we all gained something we never expected.