Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Orlando native makes film on Somalia through the eyes of soccer players


Brian Bellinkoff

The past three years, Brian Bellinkoff has been producing, shooting and editing in Kenya, Somalia and the United States a passion project called "Men in the Arena," a film by J.R. Biersmith. It is the story of two Somali national team soccer players-Saadiq and Sa'ad-chasing their dreams of playing professionally against impossible odds. The film's mission is to shine a positive light on the most war-torn country in the world through the lens of sports.

Saadiq lived in a complicated Nairobi neighborhood, Sa'ad lived in Mogadishu outside of the green zone. 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. Biersmith 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.

Biersmith and Bellinkoff interviewed Saadiq and Sa'ad, members of the national team, during a soccer match in Somalia.

"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," Biersmith said on the Men in the Arena website (meninthearena.com) "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."

The production team was comprised of Biersmith, director and producer; Bellinkoff, executive producer and editor; and Gary Lionelli, composer. For hometown boy Bellinkoff-he grew up in Orlando and attended Congregation Ohev Shalom-this love for documentary film-making began at the University of Miami where he met Biersmith. He is the EVP of production at Media Meld Studios based in New York and Los Angeles and has produced two other feature documentaries, and is executive producer on the reality show "LogHeads."

Saadiq and Sa'ad standing in the Mafadishu Stadium

"Our filmmaking journey is almost as miraculous as our subjects both living safely in St. Louis at the close of the film," said Bellinkoff. "Because they speak about Al'Shabaab publicly in the film, we had to get them out of East Africa. I believe my Jewish education and empathy for those who've been wrongfully persecuted were driving factors for my passion for this project."

"Men in the Arena" was an "Official Selection" at the 2016 Heartland Film Festival award and the St. Louis International Film Festival, and received the Bronze Award at the Mexico International Film Festival.

With film festivals and a college tour completed, the film has now been released by the distributor, Gravitas Ventures, on VOD with most cable providers, iTunes, and Amazon. The story has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, BBC and NPR.


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