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The FC Start Movie; an interview with director Tyler Gooden (Part 1)

Tyler Gordon

Imagine stepping on to a soccer pitch knowing that it could possibly be the last game of your life. Imagine kicking off knowing that you and your teammates are the only beacons of hope in a Nazi-occupied city. Imagine scoring a goal knowing that victory could have potentially tragic consequences. Imagine playing the match without fear despite carrying all those burdens. Imagine.

That is the story of FC Start, the greatest team you may have never heard of, and the infamous ‘Death Match’ against Flakelf, the Nazi Luftwaffe XI.

“I knew it would be the greatest film ever made,” said an excited Tyler Gooden, director of the independent 3D animated film, The FC Start Movie.

The making of the FC Start Movie is a labour of love for Gooden ever since he came across their story whilst backpacking in Europe.

“I was recruited onto a Terry Gilliam film in Prague when I was drawing in a café,” Gooden explained “From there, I found work in visual effects and concept design all across Europe. Somewhere in there I read about FC Start in a travel book, and immediately began research and translating old Ukrainian newspaper articles”.

Gooden has no illusions about the size of the task in bringing the story of FC Start to life. Despite seemingly being an ideal tale to make into a movie there have been relatively few attempts to dramatize the story.

“It’s not an easy film to make,” warned Gooden and upon closer inspection of the story of the team from Bakery #3 he couldn’t be more correct. This isn’t simply the chronicle of an extraordinary football team; it’s the chronicle of an extraordinary team living in extraordinarily bleak times.

“In 1942, after years of brutal dictatorship from one of the worst dictators in human history, Josef Stalin, the country of Ukraine was ‘liberated’ by the other most murderous dictator in human history, Adolf Hitler. The people of Ukraine were stuck in the middle, in a land known as ‘The Breadbasket of the Soviet Union’, the richest most fertile farmland in Europe,” detailed Gooden “And yet, with enough food to feed Europe, millions were dying – many from starvation. They were starved out and forced to give grain or run mechanized bakeries to feed their enemies, who had now seized their capital city, Kyiv. Amongst the survivors was (Josef) Kordik, a baker, but more important, he was a legendary fan of football. When the Nazis summoned him to lead production in one of these bakeries, he was tasked to search for bakers in order to meet their demanding quota. With all of his bakers killed in the invasion, he had to find new bakers. Being the great fan of football, he scoured the streets for any surviving members of his favorite professional football clubs. He found them scattered about and brought them in, saved them, and gave them work. In turn, he was in the presence of his heroes. Things changed when the Nazis saw them kicking around a football and then they challenged the bakers to a game. The Nazis had no idea who they were about to play –the surviving members of Kyiv’s greatest teams. From there, the stakes just rise and rise until the bakers must make a tremendous decision – remain the best, reclaim the voice of their nation and win the game – but suffer the consequences. Or throw the game and walk away with their lives.”

The weight and the gravity of the FC Start story is a tough enough task to translate into a movie but the additional challenge for Gooden is to ensure his animated feature comes across as a dramatic retelling rather than a documentary.

“Well, to be honest, this is a very fine line, and my film may not be for everyone,” he candidly admitted, “I really don’t know yet how people will receive it. My goal is not to repeat facts, but to frame the truth, which is not the same thing as a timeline of facts. This is an expression, and an interpretation, not much different than the way a poet or another artist might interpret other events in history”. 

Even though The FC Start Movie is a dramatic retelling of the exploits of the Ukrainian wonder team Gooden is acutely aware of the era the players were living in.

“This is a sensitive time and place in history. For that, I have a lot of respect. I want to be sure I represent Ukraine, the region and history, and FC Start well, while still having room to express and interpret. I keep returning to the theme, the allegory, the symbols that are embedded in the story. If I maintain orbit around the deeper meanings in the story, I like to think I maintain that integrity. I can only tell you that I, and my team, are giving every day, to be honest in our work, and to give the world something that elevates their experience. Once it’s finished, the audience may decide what to do with it”.

What does make the FC Start story unique is that the team’s talisman was not a striker but the goalkeeper Nikolai Trusevich. Indeed applying the descriptions ‘captain, leader, legend’ do not begin to describe to Trusevich’s stature.

“He’s the goalkeeper, the last defense. I see his role as very symbolic, rather than just in football terms. He’s quite important to my story,” Gooden revealed “And if you study art and cinema and the culture of the times, the goalkeepers in the Soviet Union were, in fact, seen quite heroically”.

Despite having many strong characters to choose from to drive the story the team practically and symbolically remains at the centre of the story.

“My view is what is buried deep below the surface of each of the Ukrainians is the main character in the story. The football team becomes a mirror which reflects the heart of Ukraine,” said Gooden.

The journey of FC Start culminated on the 9th of August, 1942 in the infamous ‘Death Match’ against Flakelf, the Nazi Luftwaffe team. The game itself finished 5-3 to FC Start but the score only tells a small part of the amazing story of this clash. There’s the iconic poster, the outrageous defiance of Trusevich and company in the face of Nazi threats and how FC Start effectively became more than just a mere football team.

Gooden acknowledged the dilemma and difficulties that the members of FC Start faced. The players never asked to be heroes but didn’t shy away from their responsibilities to the people of Nazi-occupied Kyiv either. FC Start were a collection of footballers who just wanted to play but they were well aware that they gave the locals of Kyiv a ray of hope in the darkness of Nazi rule.

“There’s a heaviness in their decision and a lightness in their conviction,” described Gooden “to play the game was to be truly alive in a life that offered nothing but misery anywhere else but the football pitch. But to play came with a price. You don’t challenge death to a game, without inviting trouble. If you choose to live, you know the consequences. So how are you going to play?”  

tyler-gooden

Gooden realizes how central the ‘Death Match’ is in crystallizing the legend of FC Start. To do it justice was proving to be a challenge.

“I drafted several versions (of the match) long ago, all based purely on historical fact, and none were working and all were getting rejected,” Gooden admitted, “I then took a train from my home in Prague, into Krakow, Poland. I went to Auschwitz, and was moved by the experience.   Then I returned and walked around Krakow for two hours just thinking about the story over and over as I walked the perimeter of the city in circles. Suddenly, it hit me, and I knew how to tell it.   The entire structure fell into place on that trip to Poland. I am not going to say anything else, but when we arrive at the final game, I recommend you bring an anchor if you don’t want to be floating across the ceiling.” 

Despite triumphing against the odds the story of FC Start is not a happy one. They played one further match thrashing Rukh 8-0 before being rounded up by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp in Syrets. Some members of the team including the captain, Nikolai Trusevich, were executed while the survivors had to live through the horrors of Stalin’s regime again after the fall of Nazi rule. The experiences of the survivors is captured in the movie and a chapter of the FC Start story that Gooden felt had to be included.

“Not only did they face Stalin once, and then Hitler, but they faced Stalin a second time when the Red Army took back the country.  They went from the frying pan, into the fire, and then got served for dinner when Stalin returned, more paranoid than ever, and ready to punish Ukraine again, either for losing the invasion or for suspicions of treason. They were truly stuck between hell and hell.  That’s dealt with in our story, and one of the reasons why I have composed it in the way I have, structurally,” he explained “so yes, I can imagine the helplessness, but it’s also why you will shiver when you watch the film and see the game.  

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