Tracing the secret success of an unsung hero

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

At first glance it seems as though filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul came out of nowhere, made documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” on his home computer, then floated onto the red carpet to be awarded an Oscar.

“In fact, it was incredibly hard work,” says the Swedish director in a phone interview with The Japan Times of his Academy Awards best documentary-winner, in which he unravels how obscure 1970s American folk singer Sixto Rodriguez became a major star in South Africa — without realizing.

“For four whole years, I lived and breathed ‘Sugar Man.’ It dominated every waking moment and it seeped into my dreams. For four years, there was nothing else in my life. That was how I got the film made.”

Luckily for the 36-year-old director, the logistics of filmmaking have changed dramatically over the last decade, enabling first-time filmmakers to sit down and just do it.

“I think the industry has come to a point where virtually anyone can make a film,” he says. “You don’t have to go to film school. You don’t need good connections. Cameras are cheap, and laptops are even cheaper. If you have a desk and a computer, you’re pretty much good to go. What once took 100 people and a whole lot of money to make, now takes about 10 people and a fraction of what a film used to cost.”

Bendjelloul says he has yet to add up the exact figures, but the overall cost of making “Searching for Sugar Man” comes to about “a few hundred thousand dollars” — no pittance, but still the lower end of the scale for feature documentaries. He also mentions that sustaining himself during those four years was much tougher than getting the funds together.

“I got paid nothing during that whole time,” he says. “If a novice filmmaker can keep himself going during the actual film production, with no income and a lot of work to deal with, then he can look forward to a beautiful future. Remember: Optimism is your best friend.”

About six years ago, Bendjelloul decided to resign from his job as a reporter/producer for Sweden’s Sveriges Television to go on a trip around the world. “I wanted to make a movie, and I wanted a really good story for it,” he says.

He found one in South Africa.

“Searching for Sugar Man” tells the tale of virtually unknown Detroit musician Rodriguez, whose songs captivated antiapartheid Afrikaners in the mid-1970s to 1980s. Assuming their hero to be dead, a pair of Rodriguez fans had tracked down the downtrodden singer and alerted him to his status as a star in South Africa

“I had never listened to Rodriguez’s music,” admits Bendjelloul. “I had never heard of his name. I only knew this was the greatest story I’d ever heard.”

Initially, Bendjelloul decided to turn it into a seven-minute film for SVT that would run “like one long anecdote.” But after approaching SVT and giving the matter a second thought, he decided that “the material was too precious to go into a seven-minute segment. This wasn’t a news story, but something much deeper.”

Interestingly, Bendjelloul had almost no personal connection to this story. He wasn’t particularly a music fan, nor was he into the American folk-rock scene of the 1970s. As for apartheid, he only knew what he’d seen on the news during his childhood.

“It seemed like whenever I turned on the TV, someone was talking about apartheid and it struck me as a bizarre policy for a country to adopt. But after Mandela came into power, people stopped talking about it. That struck me as strange, as well.”

When Bendjelloul arrived in South Africa, he was surprised by the number of white Afrikaners who had worked against apartheid and supported Nelson Mandela, even as they went virtually uncredited by the global media.

“On the whole, I think the Afrikaners of the 1970s and 1980s were more liberal and sincere about abolishing racism than their American counterparts. And the proof of that is that they embraced Rodriguez and his music. In the U.S., a name like Rodriguez wasn’t exactly a career enhancer. Americans were apt to take one look and say, ‘Oh, that guy is a mariachi’ or something. Rock music of that period meant Lou Reed and Bob Dylan.

“But the Afrikaners didn’t care if Rodriguez was Mexican-American. They didn’t care about his Spanish looks. They just heard the music, and they loved it.”

For Bendjelloul, Rodriguez became an inspiration not just because of his music but “for the way he tells us that it’s not really about success or money but sticking to your dream. I know that sounds so cliched, but it’s a great message to take away in this age.”

Other great music docs

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Directed by Wim Wenders, this is a poetic and illuminating look at a group of aging Cuban musicians, resurrected through the efforts of Ry Cooder who travelled to Havana and got them to play again.

It Might Get Loud (2008)

Director Davis Guggenheim’s ardent tribute to the electric guitar, portrayed through the viewpoints and works of Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge — who all get up and jam together.

This is it (2009)

The world’s last glimpse of Michael Jackson, culled from intimate footage of rehearsals for the London performances he would not survive to perform. In Tokyo, theaters were jam-packed and some fans burst into tears.

Dont Look Back (1967)

A stylish doc by D.A. Pennebaker that follows Bob Dylan in London, 1965, with appearances by Joan Baez and Bob Neuwirth. This was the period Dylan was shifting from acoustic to electric guitar, inviting criticism from Baez.