An agnostic filmmaker on death

Now at an age where he says he will do anything that gets stuck in his head for more than 48 hours, filmmaker Nikos Panayiotopoulos is realizing a dream he has had since he was a teenager. His obsessions have led him to produce a film almost every two years. In the early spring of 2006 he completed a «tweaked» musical (in his own words), shot on CinemaScope and which features a middle-aged professor of the Athens School of Fine Arts, who divides his time between his wife and two mistresses until he finds out he is suffering from life-threatening leukemia and has just three months to live. «Dying in Athens» is the glib title, a wink to the city in which Panayiotopoulos has lived and worked for so many years. «When I walk around the city, every single corner reminds me of a film shoot,» he says. «Athens as a city is a source of inspiration to me. I don’t copy it, I transform it.» Indeed, a snow-clad Athens, where people twirl and dance to the sounds of Stamatis Kraounakis’s eccentric music and to choreography by Constantinos Rigos, is all make-believe. The CinemaScope shots render the city center in a panoramic view that is disarming and enchanting. «I have put every trick I have learned, every experience, into this film,» Panayiotopoulos says. Meanwhile, the busy director is getting ready for a new project titled «Athens – Constantinople,» which he describes as a road movie. «Dying in Athens» in dedicated to your wife, Marianna Spanoudaki, a costume designer and your partner for 35 years in life and films. Did you make this film for her? Not at all. I dedicated it to her like I did «Melodrama.» What’s the difference? Marianna did not inspire me to make the movie. I dedicated it to her because she is my life partner. Marianna has one advantage over me: She has no ambition. And I respect this tremendously. She hasn’t got anything to prove to anyone and my dream is to be like her. What are you trying to prove? The fact that I’m always up to one thing or another means I must want to prove something. Is «Dying in Athens» an upbeat film about life and death? My hero dies after love changes hands. It’s as if life wants to ensure continuity before someone passes away. Death does not exist as long as there is love. Love is life and life without love is mere survival. Tsarouchis put it well: «Once we have been spoken to by love, by the moon, the rest is but a terrible rerun.» If things can only be said once, what are you after? The title of the film, «Dying in Athens,» has a subterranean relationship to [Frederic Rossif’s] «To Die in Madrid,» a legendary film of political cinema. In 1936 Madrid a man dies in his quest for utopia. In 2006 Athens, my hero dies ingloriously, neither knowing what he’s after nor whether he is after anything at all. But to me, this is equally impressive and spectacular. Times of plenty need certainties, but times of decline are dominated by doubt. I feel uncomfortable in times of plenty because I reject all certainties instinctively. What certainties did you reject in this film? The «genre,» because I cannot make genre movies. That is why I call this a «tweaked» musical. My idiosyncrasy is what saves me from being commonplace. I only believe in the truths I discover for myself. What truths did you discover in making this film? Just one: Even when everything is a lie, emotion can be real. This story, for example, is a very dark «light drama,» but the feeling it emotes is real. Tell us a few words about some of the things the characters say in the film, such as the line that «there is no God, nor other worlds, just blind forces…» The hero comes to realize that he is nothing but an arbitrary thing in the universe. Personally, I am a moviemaking agnostic. I am not a Christian. I am among the doubters. And I’ll say it again: Civilizations begin with myths and end with doubts. Doubt is the sign of intellectual sophistication. What about: «I will not hang on to life. I have always been against making an effort. A coward.» That’s what I’m like. Once, when I was swimming, the currents swept me far away. I thought about giving up. I couldn’t be bothered to swim all the way to shore. Or: «Life makes everything softer.» Many say memory is a great virtue. I believe oblivion is also a virtue. Just imagine a mankind that never forgets. There is another line in the film that talks about the fear of fear, rather than the fear of death. What does that mean? I do not fear death, but that does not mean that I am reconciled with it. I think of death as a scandal, an outrage. What about the line: «Truth is the only thing that is worth anything.» That’s sarcastic. I don’t believe it. Everyone believes that truth is a panacea, that all we have to do is speak the truth and all our troubles – social, ethical and aesthetic – will go away. The hero needs to believe in something because he is marching toward death. He was a man who was full of talk, a liar who, however, loved women. Do you love women? Very much. Kazantzakis used to say, «Fruit, women, ideas.» I’ll sign up for that.