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