Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski's latest film, "The Third Half," tells the story of a beautiful and affluent Jewish girl who falls in love with a poor Christian soccer player.
Set in World War II-era Yugoslavia as Macedonian Jews were being deported to Nazi Germany, it is based on the real-life story of Holocaust survivor Neta Cohen. The film, Macedonia's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year, has won praise from Jewish groups.
But it is highly controversial in Bulgaria, an ally of Nazi Germany during the war. Historians say Bulgaria refused to deport its own Jewish citizens, but it did deport Macedonia’s Jews after occupying the region in 1941, following the fall of Yugoslavia to Axis forces. Bulgarian officials call the film an "attempt to manipulate Balkan history" and "spread hate."
RFE/RL’s Deana Kjuka spoke to Mitrevski about his film and the controversy surrounding it.
RFE/RL: Your film, "The Third Half," sparked controversy in the Balkans before it was even officially screened. How do you think this influences the film's chances of being nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film?
Darko Mitrevski: It doesn’t improve our chances. It doesn’t...[do] any damage. And it doesn't jeopardize our position [especially in the United States]. But I think you are flattering those revisionists [who are criticizing the film] by calling their actions controversial. There are no controversies. Actually there might be controversies in controversial heads only.
Please try to understand that the information, the facts, [and] the data presented in this film are identical and I would repeat identical with the information that could be easily found on the websites of let's say, for example the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, the Yad Vashem Center in Tel Aviv, [and] the Jewish Museum in Berlin. All important institutions that deal with the issues of the Holocaust confirmed this three years ago. I would say decades ago, so there are no controversies.
RFE/RL: You are now in Los Angeles promoting your film and screening it for members of the American Film Foundation and for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. You also plan to screen the film at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. How do you assess the film's chances for an Oscar nomination?
Mitrevski: Whether we are going to get the nomination or not no one could say. So far we are doing pretty good in promoting the film since we got that very impressive, very important screening at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Museum of Tolerance they run.
WATCH: The international trailer for "The Third Half"
RFE/RL: "The Third Half” is also a historical account of the soccer club FC Macedonia and its famous Jewish coach, Rudolph Spitz. Soccer has always been more than just a sport in the Balkans. Does the film "The Third Half" have an overarching political message?
Mitrevski: Well it doesn't have such a strong political message; it just tries to remind people of the hatred that happened here recently.
The generation of my parents was alive back then [during World War II]. And that hatred we saw in the Balkans could be easily repeated. Some 20 years ago that hatred erupted again. And I was the next generation who witnessed it. And that's a really strong motivation for me. To fight against it or to show that each generation has to fight over and over again if we want peace in the region.
RFE/RL: Late last year, three Bulgarian members of the European Parliament called on the EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, to confront Macedonia over the film, which they said was an "attempt to manipulate Balkan history" and "spread hate." Why were they so upset about the film? How do you interpret their reactions?
Mitrevski: Well first of all, I have no idea why three members, Bulgarian members of the European Parliament, went to Mr. Stefan Fuele and addressed the European Parliament. Because that institution has no jurisdiction and is not related to this film whatsoever. Why are they so concerned? I think you should ask them [and] not me. They call this film names but they haven't seen it. So how could anyone discuss a film that he hasn’t seen? Based on the stories, rumors, and gossip he found on the Internet?
Well [perhaps] their concerns [were] that the historic role of their political idol and patron, Bulgarian King Boris III, could be presented from a negative point of view? Yes I should say they should be concerned. But, as I said, you could find those facts on the Internet easily. Visit any institution, any museum that is in charge of these topics, these issues. You would find the same info.
They didn't try to attack [the content of] the movie. I believe they tried to stop this movie from being completed [and] to prevent its premiere. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for the film, the domestic distribution in Macedonia...[has been going] extremely well and the tickets have been sold out for two months. So I guess their mission just failed.
RFE/RL: You first met Holocaust survivor Neta Cohen 12 years ago. You cited her as your inspiration for the film. Did you consult her on the film’s production?
Unfortunately she cannot be consulted because she is slowly departing [from] this world. She suffers from a strong amnesia [but] she was very vital 12 years ago when we met and she told me her story.
Her entire family was at the premiere and yes they were deeply touched. I talked to one of her granddaughters and she said it was kind of [a] reconciliation for them because for many years they were they were [slightly] confused. They didn't know what to think of those times, how to consider their grandmother. Was she a victim or a winner? [Was] her act treachery or was it a betrayal of her family? Or was it an act of victory? [Was it] an act that saved her...[bloodline]?
RFE/RL: How much did cooperation with the Shoah foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg help you in producing the film?
Mitrevski: The Shoah foundation was founded exactly for this purpose, to save the testimonies [and] to save the individual stories of many Holocaust survivors all over the world from oblivion. And back in 1998 they interviewed Ms. Neta Cohen and that's how I found out about her existence and about her story.
I think that her words tell the truth, the truth that those revisionists and those Holocaust deniers are trying to deny. It tells [the truth] in simple words much, much better than my entire film because that’s the stark naked truth. That's her life. That's what she's been through. [Her testimony tells us] what she suffered and actually that's the story -- she eventually won.