Cannes: Film Industry Shocked by 'Searching for Sugar Man' Director's Suicide
Shock, disbelief and great sadness were the reactions of the Swedish — and international — film community following the news of the death by suicide of 36-year-old Malik Bendjelloul, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
Journalist Johar Bendjelloul said his younger brother had killed himself after struggling with depression for a short period of time.
The filmmaker rose to international fame in 2013 when his debut feature film, Searching for Sugar Man, won an Oscar for best documentary. The film tells the story of how singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who had flopped in the United States, became a superstar in apartheid-era South Africa without knowing about it.
“We woke up crying,” Mikael Svensson, a film commissioner at the Swedish Film Commission, told THR. “He was such a talent, brought such a focus on Sweden and the Swedish industry. He was 36, he made one film, won an Oscar and then died. It's horrible.”
"It's a very tragic affair and he was a wonderful filmmaker,” said Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn at the jury press conference in Cannes on Wednesday. “I feel very sorry for what is left behind him. Life is a beautiful gift."
Fellow Cannes jury member Gael Garcia Bernal, who met him "briefly at the Oscars last year," said at the jury press conference: "I am very sad that it happens like that."
In addition to winning a trophy case of awards — including a BAFTA for best documentary — Searching for Sugar Man also became a box-office hit, earning some $3.7 million in the U.S. for distributor Sony Pictures Classics. In Sweden, the film grossed more than $1.7 million, making it the most successful Swedish documentary of all time. It also revived Rodriquez's career.
Sixto Rodriguez's agent, Christian Bernhardt, told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that Bendjelloul “was an extraordinary and talented filmmaker who, through his film, gave Rodriguez a second chance.”
In 2006, Bendjelloul quit his job and took off with a camera to go backpacking around Africa, looking for stories around which he might make a film of his own. It was in Cape Town that he came across Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, who told him about his quest to find out what happened to Rodriguez.
It took Bendjelloul four years to finance and make the film, using up all his savings and borrowing from friends and family. When the film was nearly complete, a major backer pulled out, nearly capsizing the project. But at the 2013 Academy Awards, Bendjelloul and co-producer Simon Chinn accepted the Oscar for best feature documentary.
"We first met Malik at the Sundance Film Festival for Searching for Sugar Man,” Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, told THR in a statement. “Much like Rodriguez himself, Malik was a genuine person who chased the world for stories to tell. He didn't chase fame, fortune or awards, although those accolades still found him as many others recognized his storytelling."
Before his death, Malik had reportedly been working on a new documentary about conservationist, author and “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony.
Watch Malik Bendjelloul's visit to the THR studio in February 2013 below.