To help support these athletes and others like them, you can donate to the LionHeart Initiative 501(c)(3) nonprofit through PayPal or plan a fundraiser on Facebook. Simply include the comment ‘Journey’ with your donation to ensure part of the proceeds are shared with the filmmaker. Visit the LionHeart website to learn more about their work in Africa since 2013.
One of the most inspirational BJJ stories of last year came from the team of jiu-jitsu athletes who traveled from Sudan in a van for days to compete at the LionHeart 2019 Nairobi Open, which was organized and hosted by Edward “Tete” Burugu of One Tribe BJJ. Led by then-purple belt Mohammed “Mo” Al-Munir, the athletes braved dangerous conditions — including the ones in their home country, which was in a state of political turmoil at the time — to put their training to the test, arriving at the competition just three hours before it began after traveling over 1,500 miles to get there.
Now, the world is finally going to get a behind-the-scenes look at what exactly happened on that historic trip through a documentary, and the trailer has just been released.
As the film’s release approached, the Jiu-Jitsu Times spoke with three of the people involved with the project: LionHeart Initiative managing director Armand “AK” Rupert, the program’s aforementioned East Africa director Mo Al-Munir, and the film’s director, Ibrahim “Snoopy” Ahmed. Al-Munir, now a brown belt, emphasized the importance of the competition not only to the participating athletes, but to BJJ in Sudan and Africa as a whole.
“We’re the only BJJ gym in Sudan,” he said. “Some countries might have two or three gyms. So it was a big deal to have a tournament because there are really only a handful of gyms in the region. We ended up having seven countries represented there.”
The sheer lack of jiu-jitsu not only in Sudan, but many African nations, has presented a unique challenge to Al-Munir as he works to build up membership numbers at the Muqatel Training Center where he coaches. “I founded the gym a little over four years ago. It’s a full MMA gym. It’s come a long way; we have about 150 members who are active now. We have some guys who have been training with us from day one, and we expect them to push the movement forward,” he says, explaining that the gym has had to work to get its members interested in jiu-jitsu. “It took a long time to introduce what jiu-jitsu is. We introduce them to boxing and other martial arts first, then we’re educating them about jiu-jitsu so they know what it is first. We have about four blue belts now, which took a lot of effort.”
The Nairobi Open represented a unique challenge for the team, and Al-Munir admits that even though the competitors knew the journey would be tough, they didn’t know quite how tough it would be. But perhaps no one would have been as prepared for such a stressful journey as the Sudanese team anyway. At the time, the country was experiencing political unrest following the removal of its president, Omar al-Bashir, from office. The military had taken over, saying that it would be another two years before the country had another election, and protests had erupted as a result. Many members of the Muqatel BJJ team were involved in protests, and at one point, they started setting up BJJ mats while participating in sit-ins, giving demonstrators the chance to roll while engaging in non-violent protest.
When the team decided to compete in Kenya, they had to make tough choices about transportation. Flying would have been ideal, but it was too expensive. Instead, the team rented a 12-person van and filled every seat: one for the driver, one for Al-Munir’s dad (who is also the team’s manager), one for Snoopy, seven for the competitors, and two for the gear. They initially expected the trip to take about two days, so they allocated three to make it to Nairobi with a couple of days to spare. Instead, the journey took six days, the group enduring obstacles like visa issues and vehicle trouble on the way there. They often slept in the van, and when they arrived at their destination, they had just three hours before the competition started and hadn’t eaten since the previous day.
Al-Munir described the effects that the trip had on his body while he was competing. “I closed a triangle and my legs were like, not even mine. I couldn’t even close them from sitting in the car that long. We weren’t getting any exercise the whole past week.” He watched, though, as his students were transformed by the mere act of finally competing after everything the team had been through. “The guys came in and gave it their all. They didn’t eat or sleep. They needed this after all the protests and chaos. One of our guys was seen on Al Jazeera carrying a body. He’s still not ready to talk about it, but to see him on that day, all smiles… he didn’t even get a medal, but you could tell that it was worth it for him.”
The journey was an intense, but worthwhile endeavor for the competitors, but not everyone involved in the journey did jiu-jitsu. The film’s director, Snoopy, doesn’t even train, but he was so drawn to jiu-jitsu and the athletes’ story that he felt inspired to document their experience.
“When I met Mo four years ago, I was shocked to find that there’s someone who actually teaches BJJ and MMA,” he said. “I like to support unique stuff that doesn’t find a lot of support. So since 2016, I was always just pushing the jiu-jitsu and making it one of the top sports. We’re always thinking about how we can develop this game and get everyone to know more about it.
“In Sudan, it’s soccer. They spend all that money and it’s not even that good. To find something that’s so unique [as jiu-jitsu]… I thought that was my mission: to push it forward. In Sudan, there’s only one [BJJ] club. Why not have it as the main sport in Sudan instead of soccer?”
Snoopy was initially hesitant to go on the trip with the team because he was already working on another project, but he knew that this was the perfect chance to tell an incredible story and promote the art even more. Like the other passengers in the van, he was not expecting to endure so many challenges along the way.
“The film is only a quarter of what happened, really. Sometimes I was dizzy or really hungry, and if you have low energy, you can’t shoot. A lot of shots that I wanted to shoot, I couldn’t. We slept in the car for a few days, we confronted the army, we even arrived the same day of the tournament,” he said.
With all of the obstacles standing in their way, though, Snoopy found inspiration in the team’s hunger to overcome the odds. “In the beginning, I thought it would be a quick highlight video of what happened, but then I thought, why not turn it into a short film and let people talk about the experience?” he said. “We have a responsibility of developing a country now that we’re in a new phase with the new government. If you haven’t been doing anything, now’s the time to do something for yourself or your country. You can be inspired to not only do MMA, but also do anything you want in life after you watch the movie. These guys suffered the pain because they have this passion and motivation. Go out there and do whatever you like.”
The filmmaker’s vision came to life just as he’d hoped, and it even won an award at the Sudanese Independent Film Festival. Snoopy had intended to submit it to other contests as well, but given the current state of the world, he decided to release it to the public early.
Al-Munir believes that the film could be particularly inspiring to people who are feeling disheartened or scared due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “Especially now with the virus and everything happening, I think this is a good time for the film to be shown. People everywhere have to face their fears to make their dreams come true. It might take many days and a bunch of energy and so many miles to get to a small event, but it was as big of a deal as ADCC. [The competitors] can come back and tell the story of what it’s like to compete against guys from Tanzania. It takes the community to make these things happen, whether it’s curing a virus or competing in a small BJJ tournament.”
Al-Munir and the rest of the Muqatel Training Center staff have hit the ground running and are focused on achieving the team’s many goals, one of which is to increase their number of female competitors. “If the men are struggling in numbers, the women are way behind. What are we going to do next to make the women’s dreams come true so they have the opportunity to compete.”
Watch the trailer for the documentary below, and keep your eyes open for the film’s forthcoming release: