Malik Bendjelloul: Director who won Sweden's first Oscar for 30 years, and a Bafta, for his documentary 'Searching For Sugar Man'


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The Independent Online

Until Malik Bendjelloul's documentary Searching For Sugar Man was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012, the American singer-songwriter Rodriguez was only remembered in his native Detroit, in Australia and New Zealand, and especially in South Africa, where the thoughtful, social commentary of songs like "I Wonder'' and "Sugar Man'', from his 1970 debut album Cold Fact, had been adopted by young white opponents to the apartheid regime during the 1970s and '80s. Bendjelloul's labour of love film, five years in the making, changed all that.

Searching For Sugar Man told the story of this son of Mexican immigrants, a performer influenced by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, whose folk-soul hybrid was reminiscent of Terry Callier, another lost artist who later underwent a renaissance. Sixto – he didn't use his first name – Rodriguez seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth after recording a second album, Coming From Reality, in London in 1971, and aborted sessions for a third back in Detroit in 1972. With little information about him in the pre-internet age, Rodriguez had become the subject of wild rumours, including on-stage suicide and even self-immolation, but he was actually leading a spartan life, with no television or telephone, and worked as a builder in his home town after raising three daughters.

Bendjelloul discovered the music of Rodriguez, and its impact in South Africa, while backpacking around Africa in 2006. "I thought it was the best story I had ever heard," he told The Independent in 2012. "That is why I got intrigued, because it wasn't just one story, it was a lot of stories. It was about apartheid, the detective story, and there was this Cinderella story. All those together made me think that it could be feature-length," said the film-maker who, until then had only directed short items about Björk, Kraftwerk, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Sting for Swedish Television.

Bendjelloul's inspired move was to build the documentary around the two South African fans of Rodriguez, the record shop owner Stephen Segerman – inevitably nicknamed "Sugar Man" – and the music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom, and their quest to discover the truth and eventually bring the singer to South Africa for triumphant concerts in the late 1990s. "All the time when I was doing the editing, that was my ultimate storyline, to tell it from those fans' eyes," he said.

This approach also helped circumvent the problems brought about by Rodriguez's asceticism and his reluctance to appear in front of the camera. "I went to Detroit every year for four years," recalled Bendjelloul. "He didn't agree to be interviewed until my third visit. I think he only changed his mind because he felt kind of sorry for us. He saw how hard we were working."

Indeed, Bendjelloul used up all his savings to complete the project. When the main backers suspended funding, he finished filming on a smartphone using an iPhone app called 8mm Vintage Camera that enabled him to match the Super 8 footage he already had in the can.

Searching For Sugar Man won the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary and the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit at Sundance in 2012, and went on to triumph in the Best Documentary category at the Oscars and the Baftas the following year and has grossed close to $10 million in cinemas and on DVD. Deservedly discovered by hipsters and fêted the world over, Rodriguez appeared at prestigious events like Coachella, Glastonbury and the Montreux Jazz Festival last year. At 71 he is now a fixture of the international touring circuit, as well as a Radio 2 recurrent.

Born in Ystad, southern Sweden, in 1977, Malik was the son of Hacène Bendjelloul, an Algerian doctor, and Veronica Schildt, a translator and a painter. In his early teens he portrayed a recurring character called Philip Clavelle in Ebba and Didrik, a Swedish television series about siblings in a seaside village directed by his uncle. Intent on a career in the media, he studied journalism and media production at the University of Kalmar (now Linnaeus University), a training that stood him in good stead when adding graphics and other visual elements and painstakingly editing Looking For Sugar Man. "When you have limitations, you have to come up with a creative solution," he said of the process.

In 2001, when Swedish Television launched Kobra, a wide-ranging culture programme profiling the likes of John le Carré, David Lynch and Madonna and broadcast on SVT1, its main channel, Bendjelloul joined the team. He thought he had found his métier overseeing the music coverage but grew restless after five years and quit to travel through South America and Africa in search of a potential story.

Even more than Sacha Gervasi's Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, the 2008 documentary about the early 1980s Canadian heavy metal band, Bendjelloul's film transformed a cult act into a mainstream name. Searching For Sugar Man reinvigorated the "rockumentary" genre and has served as the template for films about soulman Charles Bradley and oddballs John Otway and Johnny Moped.

The film-maker was criticised for not mentioning Rodriguez's previous comebacks in Australia in the 1979 and 1981 to make his documentary more compelling, as well as for letting Clarence Avant, the so-called Godfather of Black Music and the owner of Sussex Records, the singer's label, get away with vague answers about what had happened to his royalties. Bendjelloul argued that this was a reflection of Rodriguez's own attitude towards material goods. "He is a really, really different man when it comes to that stuff. He never started to consume. In the end, it was only me who cared about money," said Bendjelloul, who went elephant-watching in Africa after his Oscar win.

Bendjelloul was the first Swede to receive an Academy Award since Ingmar Bergman's Fanny And Alexander won Best Foreign Language Film in 1984. He had been suffering from depression, his brother said, and is believed to have taken his own life. "Malik was a fantastic person. He was both unique and very friendly," Rodriguez told the Swedish newspaper Expressen.


Malik Bendjelloul, film director: born Ystad, Sweden 14 September 1977; died Stockholm 13 May 2014.