Niven Govinden’s latest novel, Diary of a Film, is a love letter to the art of cinema, a sensuous portrayal of the relationships occurring behind the camera as well as on-screen.
Diary of a Film is at its best when it is spoken through the eyes of the director, the auteur, the author: the Jhalak, Polari, and 2019 Gordon Burn Prize nominee, Niven Govinden. A woman arranging flowers on screen, her thoughts to be found in a conversation just outside of the frame; an elderly couple, their hands shot from above, eating a feast of rich browns: squid ink risotto, parchment-like baked pears, bathed in the mahogany tone of Italian leather – “a sharing menu filled with touch”, as Govinden writes; or a Modigliani postcard used as a bookmark. We imagine the crew watching the conversation just offscreen whilst the director turns his camera to the vase, the overhead rigging constructed to rest the lens just close enough to see the wrinkles of their hands, the pears, the macro shot, the shallow depth of field, the light blues of the painting as they rest themselves deeper into the celluloid. The sense of touch that analogue film, with its soft warmth and graininess, evokes so well. This is a ‘touching book’ – or what my partner would call a ‘skin to eye portrait’ of the, at times lost, at times found, ‘maestro’ of an analogue film entitled The Folded Leaf.
The protagonists of the film, wide-eyed Tom and his on-set lover Lorien – a Renaissance vision on Govinden’s pages — have developed a paternal relationship to ‘maestro’. Like his prior novel This Brutal House – an activist’s tale of the youthful, black, and queer vogueing scene in 1980s New York – Govinden’s most recent novel is also a story of filial loyalty and the finding, moulding, and nurturing of a family by young queer men with more aged, experienced, and marked queer men. In this sense Diary of a Film can be seen as a coming of age novel, just like The Folded Leaf, which was written by William Maxwell and originally published in 1945. It follows the romance of two young men brought together – both on set and in life –by a realist filmmaker for whom the cinema is a portal through which to feel, with honesty, without compromising the other people, things, and events with whom and with which one shares life.
For that reason, artistic endeavour is a necessarily exciting, mysterious, and, at times, heady and intoxicating experience in Diary of a Film. At first Govinden conjures images of the Neorealist films of Italian director Federico Fellini, most evocatively the endless, warm and cigarette-fuelled nights of La Dolce Vita (1960). Yet, by the end of the novel we are left with an image of two men in front of The Structure of Crystal (1969) by Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, another artist whose eye and whose camera see in unison, and who portrays fraternal love through small but significant everyday acts.
However, in Govinden’s novel ‘maestro’ is chastised for pillaging the “substance of others”, of their lives which play before him as a reel from which to cut the most cinematic scenes, so it would be unjust, if not simply incorrect, to end with a comparison. Instead, we end where we began: through the lens of the auteur. Diary of a Film is, at its most sparkling, an insight into the camera-eye of someone to whom the world will always bring art, and with it lasting, and inevitably convoluted, relationships.