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I first met Malik Bendjelloul at a little concert that Rodriguez performed at a Hollywood cabaret back in January. If someone hadn’t introduced the two of us, I would have assumed that the unassuming 35-year-old Swede was just another young fan of the 70-year-old Mexican-American singer who is the subject of Searching for Sugar Man, a film that became a critical and commercial triumph and is now nominated for the best documentary feature Oscar. In fact, he is its director.
Bendjelloul was born and raised in Sweden. His first introduction to the world of show business came at the age of 10, when he was cast in a TV series directed by his uncle. He went on to study at a media college, after which he began making half-hour documentary shorts for Swedish National Television that featured interviews with famous musicians. “I love music,” he says. “I think it’s a higher art form, in a way, than movies. You know, a film you see once, maybe twice. A song will follow you forever. It’s a magical thing.”
In 2006, he quit his job and took off with a camera to go backpacking around Africa for six months, looking for stories around which he might make a film of his own. In Cape Town, he met Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, who told him the story of Rodriguez. He says, “My jaw just dropped. And it’s still kind of down there.” I was like, ‘This is a really good story, actually. It’s not just a random story.’ I re-told the story to friends, and they were like, ‘This is the best story we’ve ever heard. It’s like a fairy tale. I’ve never heard any story that is as similar to those kind of archetypical fairy tales as this one.’ So then the idea started to develop, ‘Maybe it could be a half-hour TV thing?’ ‘Wow, could it be a one-hour TV thing?’ ‘Could it be feature-length?'”
The production of the film took four years, beginning in 2008. Bendjelloul secured financing for a one-month research trip to South Africa to meet with the relevant players there, with whom he recorded interviews that he thought would serve as just source material for more polished interviews down the road. Then his financing for a return trip — and for the rest of the production — fell through, so he made do with what he had already shot, which turned out to be terrific.
Afterwards, Segerman connected Bendjelloul with Rodriguez’s daughters to try to set up a meeting. “I initially thought I would not get his involvement,” Bendjelloul admits. “I called his daughters and they said, ‘Yeah, you can meet him, but you should not expect anything because he doesn’t do on-camera stuff. He doesn’t like to be on camera.'” At the time, the filmmaker figured that the project could still move forward even if its subject refused to appear on camera, because “then he would really be this mystery that everyone talks about.”
In the end, Rodriguez did agree to be interviewed on-camera. “I’m so happy that it turned out the way it did, because he’s such a wonderful man,” Bendjelloul says, but acknowledges that the singer wasn’t an easy person to interview. “He’s not this reclusive guy who doesn’t like to talk; he loves to chat about anything — politics or the world — but he doesn’t like to speak about himself. That was the problem.” He sighs, “It’s hard to interview someone like that.”
While seeking (but not finding) other gainful employment, Bendjelloul began editing his footage together with archival materials, just as he had done when he worked in Swedish television. Overall, he says, “It was one month of filming in the beginning and then it was a thousand days of editing.” He decided to structure the film like Citizen Kane, opening with people trying to figure out what happened to a man they once knew, then delving back into the past to recount the man’s history, and then offering a present-day answer — which, in Sugar Man, is at least as shocking and considerably more satisfying than “Rosebud.”
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012, where it was greeted with a lengthy standing ovation — thanks in no small part to the attendance of Rodriguez, who was introduced as the film came to an end. Its domestic distribution rights were quickly snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics, and it ended up becoming one of the year’s most critically and commercially successful documentaries. It considerably raised the domestic profile of Rodriguez, who was featured on 60 Minutes, among many other programs, and now draws audiences around the world. And, for his efforts, Bendjelloul has now won best documentary awards from the National Board of Review, Broadcast Film Critics Association, and directors and producers guilds, and also claimed the best edited documentary award from the editors guild.
Bendjelloul reflects, “It’s insane! It was supposed to be a seven-minute piece for Swedish TV. Everything that happened after that I consider a bonus.” As far as the future, he says, “Either I go traveling again looking for a story the same way I found this … or I’ll go with the best Hollywood offer … or I will become a Hollywood casualty!” I, for one, don’t think we’ll have to be searching for Malik any time soon.
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