Documentary director Malik Bendjelloul speaks to SBS Film about his efforts to restore the legacy of an elusive cultural icon.
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30 Apr 2012 - 5:06 PM  UPDATED 30 Apr 2012 - 5:06 PM

Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul knows stories. He previously travelled the world creating six-minute documentaries for Swedish television and found the stories that became the Hollywood movies The Terminal (dir. Steven Spielberg) and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Via the same route, Bendjelloul discovered the story behind his own debut documentary feature.

“I was travelling around the world for six months with a camera gathering stories and I found the best story I've every heard,” he says now. “It's like a fairytale. It sounds like it was scripted, and if it was scripted yo wouldn't believe it. It was a blessing. I thought it was a goldmine. That was osix years ago, and for the last four years, I've been working full time on the film.”

Searching for Sugar Man is the story of Mexican/American musician Sixto Rodriguez. Known to few in the United States, the guitar playing poet laureate from Detroit gained superstar status in South Africa without his knowledge. Bendjelloul's film is a captivating portrait of a true enigma. Having released two albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, the man known as Rodriguez faded from public view. Unbeknownst to him, a copy of his record made its way into Apartheid-era South Africa. There, Rodriguez became the soundtrack to a revolution, a hero to many, and an artist who sold more than 500,000 records. Meanwhile, he worked manual labour in Detroit, without any inkling of what was happening half a world away.

“In South Africa he was as popular and famous as The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, both in fame and quality,” says Bendjelloul. “In South Africa he changed society. There are many artists who are popular but how many are actually involved in the development of the whole psyche? He was one of the sparks to trigger change in South Africa. He changed the world by remote control.

“There were three factors that conspired to make this happen: South Africa was an isolated country – during apartheid it was boycotted, it was blacklisted; then you had a guy who was living in a house without a telephone, so he was isolated, too. It was a time before the Internet. You couldn't make these connections quickly. Here is someone who belongs in the pantheon of rock gods living his whole life without knowing he is a superstar; One day, a detective in South Africa said it is not good enough. We know that Jim Morrison died in a bathtub. We know that Elvis Presley died of a drug overdose. But Rodriguez, we don't know. They knew he was dead. They had no doubt that he was dead, but a multitude of questions abounded about the circumstances of his demise."

Searching for Sugar Man is presented as a mystery (hence, this interview avoids spoilers). It opens in South Africa with Stephen “Sugar” Segerman –the aforementioned Rodriguez fan-turned detective – and traces the untold story of the artist himself. We learn of the kaleidoscope of factors that influenced this singer/songwriter, revel in the poignancy of his life story, and the sheer brilliance of his music. We, like the legions of fans in both South Africa and Australia – the sole nations who recognised the genius of this artist – appreciate the uniqueness of his character and the mastery of his craft. A man who was so private he had a habit of performing with his back to the audience; a man of whom nothing tangible was known.

Searching for Sugar Man was the opening night film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and later won Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award. It received no funding throughout the course of its four-year production, yet it's realised on an epic scale.

“Only when the film was accepted into Sundance Film Festival as its opening night movie, did the Swedish Film Institute came on board,” Bendjelloul explains. “In the end, I had to make everything myself. I was sitting for a month just doing the illustrations, and there was no score, so I made the music. I did editing, although I'm not an editor. In the end, we had producers – Simon Chinn [Red Box Films, Man on Wire, Project Nim] and John Battsek [Passion Pictures, One Day in September, The Tillman Story] – but it was too late in the process to get funding. It's only now.”

What the film did have was a committed cinematographer in Camilla Skagerström and a soundtrack that lent itself to cinema. “The music is perfect for film,” Bendjelloul enthuses. “It's cinematic, beautiful and very easy to like. He has such an honest voice and is an originator of the whole genre. He was born in 1942; a lot of the great ones were born in that era. The first generation when rock music was innocent, when songs were role models for how songs should be. Classic songs. If I think about it, I was working on it for four years and I listened to these songs every single day. I was never bored. They are that good.”

Searching for Sugar Man will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August and will be released in Australia through Madman Entertainment.