We’ve seen movies about the Third Reich’s treatment of Jews, gypsies, church officials, homosexuals, Resistance fighters and people who aided fugitives. But soccer players? Not in recent memory. That’s why “The Third Half” is a highlight of the 10th Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, which runs Saturday through March 9.
Director Darko Mitrevski never intended to make a World War II film until he met Neta Koen while directing a documentary about Macedonian soccer, especially in his hometown of Skopje.
Most of the players from the 1940s had died, so he was told to visit an old Jewish woman who knew about them, because she had left her family to live with an Orthodox Christian player. She showed him a photograph of that family, all of whom had been transported to Treblinka concentration camp.
“She exploded in tears,” said Mitrevski. “She shouted, ‘I saved the bloodline of my family. We exist because of my sin!’ I was sure she wasn’t talking to me at that moment, but to her father. She never spoke to him after he sent her away, and she had lived with a terrible feeling all her life.
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“I knew this was not just for a soccer documentary. I had just seen the last scene of another film I would make.”
“Third Half” became Macedonia’s 2012 submission for the Academy Awards’ best foreign film. It combines the story of forbidden love with history about the Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia. Though the Bulgarians protected their own Jewish population, the occupying army carried out German orders to deport Macedonian Jews.
Says Mitrevski, “This is a story where soccer plays against Nazi ideology. It defends not just the Jews but the ideals of love and justice.”
A controversy over accuracy started long before the film’s debut, with Bulgarians on the attack. Mitrevski considers this “a blatant attempt at Holocaust denial. What they tried to deny was not my story of a woman who still existed – you can find her interview on YouTube – but the tragic end of the Jewish population of Macedonia.
“The Bulgarian army and police followed orders of the Gestapo, and those came from Berlin. The Bulgarians did not deport their Jews, and they should be credited for it: The church and the opposition put a lot of pressure on their prime minister to stop it. But that effort came too late to solve the problem in Macedonia.”
His film has a remarkable array of languages. The family of a Jewish banker speaks Ladino, a Spanish dialect preserved in the Serbian world after the Jews were kicked out of Spain and Portugal four centuries earlier. Bulgarian officers speak Bulgarian, while the soccer players speak Macedonian.
Their coach, a once-beloved player on the run because he’s Jewish, speaks German, and English pops up as a cross-cultural bridge. (One character’s father went to America to work in its mines. Many Macedonians emigrated to the U.S., especially Chicago and Detroit, when the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and World War I disrupted their lives. They saved money, sent some home and returned if they could.)
Mitrevski wasn’t a huge soccer fan before making the documentary and “Third Half.” He smiles at the acclaim athletes get today, because “soccer players in the 1940s were the worst thing in Macedonia after gangsters or smugglers. They were poor as mice, and only hooligans played – or that’s how they were looked on in conservative communities.”
Nor did he have a strong personal connection to the war. His mother’s father was sent to Mauthausen, but he wasn’t a Jew; his crime, says Mitrevski, was listening to Radio London.
“He survived but didn’t like to talk about it. I didn’t hear a word from him, and the entire family tried to hide that from the kids. So I was never looking to make a Holocaust movie.
“But after meeting (Neta Koen), it was kind of a moral obligation. I was the only director who had this story. If I didn’t tell it, who would?”