Malik Bendjelloul talks about his Oscar-nominated movie ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

The Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” tells the strange story of singer-songwriter Rodriguez. Back in the early 1970s, the record company had high hopes for him. With eminently hummable tunes and lyrics that eloquently spoke to life on the mean streets of Detroit, Rodriguez seemed poised to be the next Bob Dylan. But his two albums, “Cold Facts” and “Coming from Reality,” never really caught on in the United States. That would seem to be the end of the story, except, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, Rodriguez’s album did, unbeknownst to him, phenomenally well in South Africa. His songs proved to be the anthems of a generation of young South Africans who were increasingly frustrated by their government’s apartheid policies. While his albums were selling as well as “Abbey Road” in Cape Town, Rodriguez seemingly disappeared into obscurity.

“Searching for Sugar Man” also follows some hardcore South African fans, such as Steve “Sugar” Segerman, who grew fascinated by the mysterious origins of his favorite albums. Over many years, he eventually managed to track down the musician, who was living like a Zen monk in a rundown section of the Motor City.

I talked with the movie’s director, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, a couple of weeks ago, just before the Oscar nominations were announced. He talked about discovering the strange story of Rodriguez and his own difficulties with getting the movie made, which included having to shoot part of the film on his iPhone. “Searching for Sugar Man” comes out this week on DVD.

Jonathan Crow: Can you tell me how you came upon this story?

Malik Bendjelloul: I really stumbled on it, I’m afraid. I wasn’t looking for a story to make a film about. I’ve never done a film. I was backpacking around Africa and South America. I brought a video camera with me because I thought that maybe I could sell a few stories to the Swedish TV show I used to work for. I met Sugar and I met Eva, Rodriguez’s daughter, on that first trip. They told me the story. I was like, “Wow! This is a very special story.”

JC: I understand that you shot part of this movie on an iPhone. What were some of the difficulties and challenges of that?

MB: I was promised to get a grant for the movie from the Swedish Film Institute. For three years, I worked without pay, because I knew that I was going to get this grant. So I spent all my savings. And then we didn’t get the money. [The institute] said that the film wasn’t good enough for the cinema screen. I mean, that was really pretty hard to hear.

So I literally had no money. The film was 90 percent finished. I really needed to think of different ideas to do things cheaper. We started with a real Super 8 camera, but then I couldn’t afford it anymore. So instead we used the Super 8 app on the iPhone. It’s working surprisingly well, I must say. It looked almost the same.

JC: So how did you get the film finished?

MB: It was a pretty crazy story. Because I couldn’t get any money, I just did what I could by myself as place holders. Like the animated segments in the film. I made those on my own. Then the producers said that we should send the film to Sundance. I said, “It’s not finished.” They thought it would help us get funded. The film was accepted and we panicked. We learned this in mid-November, and the festival is in mid-January. So we called every professional editor and animator we knew, but they were all busy.

Then we said we’d better withdraw the movie and wait another year until we finished the film. The day before we were going to send that email, we’ve got another email from Sundance saying that they chose the film as the opening-night film. Then we were like, “Oh my God.” We can’t withdraw our film. That would be ridiculous. So we sent the film in that state with all those place holders into postproduction. Really, the film is not finished.

JC: It’s still not finished?

MB: No, it’s unfinished. They say that a work of art is never finish, just abandoned, which is basically true.

JC: So what was it about Rodriguez’s music? Was it the music or was it the story of this guy who had no success in America and phenomenal success in one country?

MB: At first I didn’t need to listen to the music, because I figured that those people in South Africa were exaggerating. They would say, “No, he’s as good as Dylan. He’s as good as the Rolling Stones.” Come on, yeah, of course you think that. You are fans. There are fans for every kind of strange artist. Then I started listening to the music, and I understood. This is really good. It’s a mystery how he never became big.

JC: Was approaching Rodriguez difficult?

MB: Yeah. First, Rodriguez didn’t have a telephone. Now he has one, but at the time he didn’t. So I got in touch through his daughters, who were very helpful. Second, Rodriguez was very reluctant to be on camera. He wasn’t hostile. He was very warm and welcoming and a lovely guy. I really liked him. But he didn’t like to be on camera. It’s very hard when you make a film about someone who doesn’t like getting filmed. So I didn’t get much footage with him. I went there every year for four years, and every time I got maybe 20 minutes of footage.

JC: He seems like a very otherworldly figure not particularly interested in fame or money or anything like that.

MB: Yeah, it’s true. He’s an extraordinary man. I think one of the reasons why he doesn’t like to do interviews is that he doesn’t really have an ego. Honestly, he doesn’t think that he is particularly interesting. I kept telling him, “Rodriguez, you have the most interesting story ever.” It was really hard to convince him that he was worth making a movie about.

He also has a very different approach to material stuff. He gives all his money from touring away to his family. He doesn’t need much, so no one compels him to do anything. He’s actually a free man. It’s very, very inspiring. He has a very different way of living in this modern world, where everything is about consuming.

JC: Your movie, I believe, is on the short list for an Academy Award. Do you have any thoughts about that?

MB: Yeah, that’s crazy. Anything that involves me and the word Oscar is just surreal.

Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)

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January 2013

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