Malik Bendjelloul’s journey to the Oscars with “Searching for Sugar Man” started with a journey around the world.
The Swedish filmmaker had a mandate from Swedish television to make a half-dozen short films. So he bought the cheapest around-the-world flight he could find and headed out -- to Ethiopia, Mexico, Argentina, Honduras -- looking for stories.
He found the tale of a lifetime in South Africa: An obscure '70s folk singer from Detroit named Rodriguez had become, without his knowledge, a cult figure to an entire generation of South Africans.
“I felt this was the best story I ever heard in my life,” Bendjelloul told TheWrap. He started to make a full-length documentary, but his TV backers were not enthusiastic.
“The Swedish film Institute watched it and said, ‘This is not good enough for the big screen. It has to be edited into a one-hour TV documentary,’” recalled Bendjelloul.
“I was so depressed for a while. I thought, ‘Maybe I failed to make a film that’s good, but it is impossible not to be moved by this story.’
“I was surprised. I thought, ‘They’re wrong.’”
So he showed his work to producer Simon Chinn (“Man on a Wire”), who took on the project with Bendjelloul. They ended up at Sundance last January playing to standing ovations and media interest that helped usher the long-forgotten, impoverished singer Rodriguez -- now aged 70 -- into the limelight.
Following the movie's Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, I asked Bendjelloul whether he would continue to pursue the story behind Rodriguez’s obscurity, especially the fact that he never saw any income from the hundreds of thousands of records he sold in South Africa. (Bendjelloul confronts the American distributor on camera in “Searching for Sugar Man” but does not get satisfactory answers.)
The filmmaker said he decided not to pursue that avenue -- while a valid one -- because of Rodriguez himself.
“I tried to do that,” he said. “I did other interviews that were very interesting. But in the end, if Rodriguez doesn’t care, then it should not be about that. He’s very different. He has such a light way of living. He never started to consume. It’s very inspiring.”
Rodriguez saw no royalties from his record sales and for decades lived solely off his work as a laborer in construction.
“He’s not angry,” said Bendjelloul. “I learned a lot about what a real artist is like. All those things that are peculiar about him is because he’s a real artist. All the other ones are bragging about their new single. He’s different. He has no ego. He doesn’t even like to talk about himself.”
The filmmaker observed: “He gives a $50 tip to every cab driver. He gives away all the money he has. All that is beautiful, it’s inspiring. It’s the way I should be, the way all of us should be like. Warm and wonderful.”