Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden

Reviewed by Annabel

Diary of a Film follows a few days in the life of an auteur film director who is in Italy with his two lead actors to promote their new movie at a prestigious film festival. 

Immediately, I discovered that this novel was going to be very different to the book I had expected. Although we will get to see some of business behind the press junkets, screenings and partying that we know is the lifeblood of film festivals, that is a mere distraction, just the background to the real story. Instead, Govinden takes us into the mind of the unnamed auteur, whom everyone addresses as maestro, whose mind is in that ‘extended period of mourning’ as the film is released into the wild. He needs to find his next project.  

He wakes up early, and, flâneur that he is at heart, he takes to the streets before the world wakes up, ending up at a little café where he strikes up a conversation with a local woman. Over several meetings thereafter, Cosima takes him on a walk to show him some of the city’s secrets, including a mural painted by a graffiti artist she knew who committed suicide which has a big emotional effect on the auteur. She also tells him about a novel she wrote: it’s forgotten now, but the auteur feels compelled to seek out a copy. He senses it could be his new film, ‘already I felt it taking over in my mind, as previous stories had done.’

In between his meetings with Cosima he has to work and spend time with actors Lorien and Tom. Their film is loosely inspired by William Maxwell’s 1945 novel The Folded Leaf, a coming-of-age story of two fifteen-year-olds, opposites in character, whose close friendship is challenged as they move into adulthood. In the film Tom and Lorien are lovers, and this has spilled over into real life too. The auteur very much hopes that Lorien, who is younger and inexperienced, won’t get hurt. The auteur has long been in a stable relationship and his own husband has remained behind with their child, and he reflects that family life has changed him, he doesn’t want to go so far for his art any more. 

The auteur is talking to Lorien about the film, Maxwell and novels in general. Lorien replies with the emotion of youth, tempered with a new realisation:

…this is what I’m left with, maestro, what I think about. The difficulty of being happy when you know that it will end. It was the feeling I had during the entirety of our shoot. (…) The summer would end and I’d move on to a new film and a new set of relationships. Only I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this particular family. So what to do, barricade myself in my room and refuse to come on set in order to stretch the experience out, if only by a day? Or suck it up and let these novels absorb me? I choose the novels every time. Let those characters fuck up so I don’t have to…

Although Diary of a Film is first and foremost a thoughtful and quiet novel, Govinden gives us just enough drama to drive the novel on. When the auteur tells Cosima he has read her book and he must adapt it for his next film, Cosima begins to feel used, to have lost control of something from her own past that she didn’t necessarily want to be exhumed. For her, the auteur’s creative genius is transformed into sheer arrogance and their friendship is threatened. The auteur, lost in his vision, doesn’t realise he is hurting her; sometimes he only truly becomes alive at these times when he is no longer an observer.

The auteur’s thoughts are very much presented by Govinden in a stream of consciousness style, each chapter being presented in a single paragraph with unpunctuated dialogue. This won’t be to every reader’s taste, but it isn’t difficult to read at all. This novel is, however, profoundly introspective as the auteur examines his life and work, past and present, allowing the reader into his mind. The cinematic art may be this auteur’s raison d’être, but he is no monster. Govinden gives us a sympathetic character overall and a unique insight into the creative process. His writing is always elegant, elegiac even, and I enjoyed this novel very much indeed.

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Annabel is Co-Founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Niven Govinden, Diary of a Film (Dialogue, 2021). 978-0349700717, 224pp., hardback.

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