June 2013, Athens
I’m making a film about Codename Xenophon, to give the flavour of the story, characters and setting. I make a list of possible scenes. Then I walk around the streets, recording what I see on a small camera: the changing guards at the Parliament, hurrying shoppers on Athinas Street, buses, cars, motorbikes, an endless flow of traffic and people, graffiti and rubbish, and poor thin Bangladeshis scavenging the bins. Above it all the Parthenon, floating above its rock like a mirage, a dream of utopia…
It’s tricky to find the right images for a story without words. I find myself filming the city’s animals: a tortoise that tries to nibble a piece of gravel, thinking it’s a piece of food; a dog waiting patiently at a crossing for the lights to change. I have only a general idea of what to shoot. I let things happen and come to me, following the chances of life.
Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet and bossa nova singer, used this kind of open-minded wandering as a preparation for writing songs. He called it ‘total vagabondage’.
Much of Codename Xenophon is set on the island of Aegina, so I take the ferry from Piraeus to do some filming there. As the ship rumbles away from the dock, belching black smoke, I watch the green water of the port give way to a gorgeous mineral blue. Mountains and islands slide into view. Laid-up tankers and cargo ships remind me of the country’s economic crisis. Seagulls swoop and glide.
In the book I describe my detective, George Zafiris, escaping from the noise and heat of the city to the quiet beauty of the island. It is just over an hour away, and the peace seems miraculous. People on Aegina seem to be living their lives, not suffering them.
The film becomes gentler. Waves dance along the jetty. A ferry sails off towards the Peloponnese, its flanks reflecting the coppery evening light. Lanes of little 19th century cottages ramble away under fig trees and palms. Somehow I have to make this look like the setting for a murder!
An animal comes to the rescue: a crow squawking hoarsely from a power-cable strung between houses. It seems to be announcing some calamitous news. I catch it, raucous and fierce, black as coal against a brilliant blue sky.
In a restaurant by the sea, a group of Romanian priests are eating fish. One wears dark glasses: with his beard and pony tail and long black robes he looks as sinister as the crow. I am reminded of that old Italian custom – men touching their balls for good luck when they see a figure in holy orders. That shudder of association is just right for the film.