A conversation with Searching For Sugar Man director, Malik Bendjelloul

As Searching For Sugar Man gets its DVD release, we talk to director Malik Bendjelloul about his own quest to bring this jaw-dropping story to the screen

This year saw the addition of another film to the annals of Greatest Ever Documentaries. Searching For Sugar Man (out on DVD Dec 27) tells the implausible – yet completely true – story of half-forgotten 70s troubadour Rodriguez, the massive impact he had halfway around the world, and the epic quest to discover his fate. Here director Malik Bendjelloul tells The Independent about his own quest to bring this Oscar-tipped film to the screen. 

SPOILER ALERT: Some of Bendjelloul’s answers hint at certain events in the film which you might not want to know about till you've seen it!

The Independent: How did you first hear about Rodriguez?

Malik Bendjelloul: I was backpacking around Africa and South America looking for stories with a camera. I found six stories and this was one of the six. I thought it was the best story I’d ever heard.

The thing is, I didn’t believe them at first. They said, listen, this music is as good as Rolling Stones and I said yes, of course you think this, because you are fans and fans will like any kind of strange music, but then I went out into the streets of Cape Town and asked random people "Have you ever seen this guy? They say he’s famous here, his name is Rodriguez, ever heard of him?" And everyone says: “What do you mean have I ever heard of him? That’s like asking me if I ever heard of Jimi Hendrix, of course I heard of Rodriguez.” Then I listened to his music with another perspective because I understood that maybe this is actually really, really good and when you hear it, it is, really, really good.

Independent: How long did the production take you, from when you first heard of the story to the premiere?

MB: The premiere was in January 2012, one year ago now, and the first time I met Sugar [a fan of Rodriguez featured in the film] was in 2006 and then I started full-time in 08.

Independent: Was the mystery still unfolding as you were making the film?

MB: No I heard the whole story, I knew every aspect of the story from the very start. That is why I also got that intrigued by it, because it wasn’t just one story it was a lot of stories. It was apartheid things that I didn’t know of, it was the detective story and there was this Cinderella story of something and all those things together made me thing that it could be feature length because I never did feature length, I did short stories, but this needed more time.

Independent: It must have been difficult to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. Are there any strands of the story you’re regretful that you had to omit?

MB: No, I don’t think so, because I told the story as I heard it. It was Sugar who told me the story the first time. Imagine if you’re a fan of Jimi Hendrix – I mean it was on that scale – and then you think he’s not alive, but you just want to find out what happened, know the details of his death and then you end up actually changing Jimi Hendrix’s life. I thought that was an amazing story. All the time when I was doing the editing, that was my ultimate storyline, to tell it from those fan’s eyes.

Independent: Was it only white South Africans that were fans of Rodriguez? When you watch the concert footage, it seems like all or mainly white faces in the audience.

MB: There was. It was definitely a predominantly white audience. There was also this screening in Durban where it came up and someone in the audience said: "I was in the ANC and I was a friend of Steve Biko and Steve Biko was a big Rodriquez fan." But you’re right, it was very much still an apartheid society. It was very separate cultures and Rodriquez was mainly famous among whites.

Independent: What’s his fame like now? Is it mainly the people who listened to him back in the 70s or does he have new fans of a younger generation in South Africa?

MB: He really, really has. 75 per cent of his fans are younger than about 25 or something. He’s really completely contemporary in South Africa.

Independent: Did you withhold any details to keep the mystery of Rodriguez alive in the film?

MB: The thing was I was really, really worried the first time I met him I was like “Oh my God I have a subject who doesn’t want to be on camera, who doesn’t even speak!” I was there for two weeks and he said, tomorrow, tomorrow maybe. The last day, because he knew I was going to go back and I hadn’t got what I wanted, the reason why I came there, only then, just to be polite he gave me that interview and even then he didn’t speak, except monosyllabically. And I was really worried so I came back every year and did another interview, like 60 minute interviews and none of them was any better, it was always these short answers and it was only in the very end that I watched the film and I saw how it is that I understood this is the way it should be, this is beautiful almost. This is why it happened almost, why he had this struggle, because he didn’t play the game, he couldn’t, he was allergic to this kind of limelight and to be. He hasn’t that ability, which is sort of beautiful because it tells you why it happened.

Independent: You didn’t hold anything back, then…

MB: Not it terms of Rodriguez. If I had gotten a really, really nice interview where he was talking for half an hour, of course I would have used it. It would have been better to do it this way, it’s the same thing with the archive. If I had an archive, I wouldn’t have thought two seconds whether I would use it; of course I would have used it. But it’s because you have limitations, then you have to come up with a creative solution and with the creative solutions, you have a million different ways to go. If you have the real stuff then there is only one way to go.

Independent: One of the areas it felt like maybe there was more to say was on the money question…

MB: Yeah. And there were versions where I had more and I did know more, like, for example, Rodriguez’s money to this day doesn’t go to him. Stuff that he sells in South Africa today goes to this company in England and I called this company in England and they didn’t really reply and I still don’t know exactly what happened to the money. Y’know, if you point someone out, you need evidence and I didn’t really have evidence, so I couldn’t really say that they’d done anything wrong.

The other reason why I didn’t do so much about the money was Rodriquez. He is a really, really different man when it comes to that stuff. I never met anyone like him. He literally doesn’t want it. You first think it’s crazy, but when you think about it, it actually makes sense. He never started to consume. And when you don’t consume there are a lot of sacrifices, of course; you can’t buy stuff and you can’t do stuff and you can’t go travelling to Mexico on nice vacations, but you also win something. You gain some freedom. No one can every tell him he has to do this, because he can always say, no I don’t need to, because I don’t need your money. I have to do stuff that I don’t want often, because I have this lifestyle that I’ve started to support. So why didn’t I say more about money? Because in the end it was only me that cared about money, because I am a normal guy who cares about money and you are too that’s why you asked that question, but he doesn’t. His is a different story. He is a different guy.

Independent: What about the issue of racism in America as a factor in his lack of success?

MB: Yes I could make that assumption, I could say yes there was that trend in these years, but it’s not necessarily true and in a way it’s better if people just think for themselves. Yes, he was Mexican, yes they actually asked him to change his name. They said, “Even Robert Zimmerman had to change his name to Bob Dylan, you have to change your name.” So yeah the racial question, of course it’s part of it, but there were many problems. I mean this is also a guy who performed with his back to the audience a guy who didn’t like interviews or having his photograph taken, so there were many things.

Searching for Sugar Man is released on DVD on 27 December

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?