Every cook can govern

In his column for Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee interviews Ceri Dingle, director of a documentary on the West Indian political theorist and revolutionary C.L.R. James, about how the daunting project came to be. McLemee will speak at the Socialism conference in Chicago this Friday at 2 p.m. on "A Meeting of the Minds: C.L.R. James and Richard Wright."

C.L.R. James speaks in London's Trafalgar Square in support of the Ethiopian anti-colonial struggleC.L.R. James speaks in London's Trafalgar Square in support of the Ethiopian anti-colonial struggle

THE WORD went around a few years ago that someone in England was working on a documentary about the West Indian historian, revolutionary political theorist and pan-African eminence C.L.R. James (1901-1989). Like the long-promised dramatic film based on The Black Jacobins, James' book on the Haitian Revolution, this seemed to me an excellent idea--and, like it, probably doomed.

For one thing, James is a very large subject. He wrote fiction and plays, lectured on Shakespeare and Hegel, and argued with Leon Trotsky and Kwame Nkrumah. He was a magnetic lecturer, able to hold an audience for hours while speaking without notes. The intelligence agencies of a number of countries kept busy monitoring him. It was a life of ideas as much as of activism (he would have protested that distinction, I suspect), but putting ideas on screen is a challenge seldom taken and even more rarely met.

It was also hard not to be dubious about the funding for such a venture. It certainly proved elusive whenever anyone tried to film The Black Jacobins, which James adapted for the stage in the 1930s. Paul Robeson, the star of that production, later tried in vain to get a film made. Rumors that one was in the works seem to have revived in the 1970s. For some reason, Hollywood never warmed to the idea of a slave revolt led by anyone but Kirk Douglas. At last report, the project's best chances were for the film to be produced in Venezuela, with funding by Hugo Chávez. The idea may not have died with him, but progress on it seems unlikely any time soon.

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MEANWHILE, HOWEVER, and against all odds, we have Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of C.L.R. James, now available for rent or purchase through Vimeo. The title comes from Lenin's The State and Revolution, via an essay celebrating ancient Athenian democracy that James wrote in 1956. Here is the trailer, in which I appear briefly, looking very much in need of a shave and haircut.

Released to much acclaim in London last year, Every Cook Can Govern is making the rounds of film festivals and has in recent months been screened in South Africa and the Caribbean. It was nominated for an award from the British Universities Film & Video Council earlier this year; while it didn't win, the judges praised "the incredible range of content explored and its excellent use of archive material." It includes rare footage of James speaking, as well as personal recollections by numerous friends and associates.

My participation was slight though sufficient to reveal how exhaustively the filmmakers prepared for their work. When Ceri Dingle, the director, first got in touch, I assumed she wanted a broad overview. My interest in James has focused mainly on his activity in the United States from 1938 until his expulsion in 1953, under McCarthyism--but I anticipated making a few general remarks, not getting into the implications of one slice of his long and rich life. Suffice to say that my guess was wrong. The questions were numerous, specific and demanding. Peer-reviewed articles on James have been published on the basis of less research than Dingle and her colleagues put into preparing for that interview.

If the goal were to cover James's whole long life in such detail, it was hard to see how the documentary could ever be released--except perhaps as a miniseries. In its final form, Every Cook Can Govern comes in at about two hours. I'd kept my doubts about the project's viability to myself while it was underway; even with it finished, the very idea still seemed daunting and left me curious how it came to fruition.

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TURNING THE tables, I hoped to interview the director about Every Cook Can Govern around the time it was released last year. But she was racing to edit it down to manageable length almost up to the moment it premiered. For months afterward, she was swamped with fundraising for WORLDwrite, the education charity in London that produced the documentary.

With Every Cook Can Govern being made available for streaming online, it seemed like a good time to try again. Now engaged in filming another documentary, Dingle made time to discuss the making of Every Cook Can Govern via e-mail, quoted here with her permission.

By 2010, WORLDwrite's "citizen television" project WORLDbytes had made a number of what Dingle calls "little videos about history makers," including a documentary about British suffragist and revolutionary Sylvia Pankhurst released the following year.

"I asked our volunteers for ideas of further lesser known heroes and heroines we should cover," Dingle says. "One lad suggested C.L.R. James, and having read and loved The Black Jacobins years ago, I thought it a brilliant idea. We agreed to reread the book and meet in a few weeks, expecting this to be a short six-week project."

While making the Pankhurst documentary, Dingle and her coworkers "learned the hard way by picking up cameras too soon" in the process. Only after conducting a number of interviews did they discover that what they had filmed "didn't represent her at all and [we] were just wrong, ghastly, in fact, willfully misrepresenting all the unacceptable stuff--her setting up the first Communist party in the United Kingdom, for example."

They had to start over. With C.L.R. James, due diligence meant a lot of reading--far more than the documentary crew ever expected. They assembled and read 11 books by James plus "many papers and articles (we counted 834)" before turning to the secondary literature, which included another 34 books. "It was a massive learning curve for all our crew, as most of us were not academics," Dingle says. "It became evident you could almost cover key moments in the history of the 20th century through the life and works of one man. That meant of course constantly reading up on context, too. It was a long, slow haul, but we felt worth it."

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EVENTUALLY THEY felt prepared to identify interview subjects for the documentary--talking heads who could answer their questions. "Surprisingly," Dingle says, "we also met a lot of self-proclaimed 'experts' who hadn't even read as much of James as our volunteers--which was quite shocking." While admittedly tempted to compare lists, I instead pressed on to ask about how the effort was financed. Dingle mentions that some 200 volunteers contributed their labor in the course of six years, but there were expenses even so.

Fundraising began "in dribs and drabs," she says, through "secondhand book sales, cake sales, jumble sales, friends chipping in, appeals on Facebook, which does sound a bit naff for a production with professional aspirations." A grant of 25,000 pounds (about $32,000) a year for three years from Britain's Heritage Lottery Fund "was quite a breakthrough" for the project, though not enough even to cover rent for WORLDwrite's Volunteer Centre, where young people are trained in filmmaking. "We ran about 15 camera courses and a lot of workshops," says Dingle, since most of the crew had "never used a camera before, or presented or interviewed anyone. We had endless discussions on books and scripts and questions and themes, did endless copyright research, and wrote many begging letters for images, too."

Begging worked only up to a point. "The biggest single cost was the archive footage," Dingle says. "We felt it was worth [going into] debt to use the footage not publicly seen before." Another possible menace to the budget resulted from the international scope of James's life and work. "Raising the cash to take a crew to the USA or Trinidad--although everyone wanted to go, of course--would have made the film a 10-year project."

But one of WORLDbytes's former tutors, Ian Foster, is now a cinematographer working on this side of the Atlantic who volunteered to record interviews between assignments. (It was when Foster set up his professional-grade video equipment in my living room that I started really to regret not going to the barber.)

In the end, Dingle and her colleagues generated more than 350 hours of footage, which had to be whittled down to two very busy hours of documentary. They also gained access to scores of pages of British state surveillance records on James and have made them available to the public through the film's website. The finished film is not exhaustive. It seems that an occasional viewer has felt the need to point this out.

"Everyone obsesses on the 'gaps,'" Dingle says. "Maybe they want the box set...But we hope we've done enough in the film to raise an interest and help inspire people new to James. If so, it's all been more than worthwhile, and we'll have done James proud." The mobilization of scores of people who'd never made a film before would surely have met with his approval. "Every cook can, of course, film, too," the director says, "but it takes a hell of a lot of work to get there."

First published at Inside Higher Ed.