Malik Bendjelloul’s debut documentary Searching for Sugar Man is the study of Rodriguez, the Detroit folk singer who became a cultural icon in apartheid South Africa without realising it.
Bendjelloul largely self-financed the film, shooting many scenes on his iPhone. Winning the Special Jury prize at Sundance 2012, and opening for the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, Searching for Sugar Man is released in cinemas today. Here, Bendjelloul reflects on the journey with i-D online.
Searching for Sugar Man hinges on your first encounter with Rodriguez. What was it like to walk up his driveway and know the success of the film hinged on the way this man would respond to you? People say he is this private man with an integrity and mystery about him. He’s talked about as if he’s a myth, and when I met him that was very much the case. He is mysterious, and he didn’t like being on camera at all. He would always say to me: “You have all the other guys interviewed on camera – you don’t need me.” I had to say to him: “Rodriguez, the film is about you.”
How has your relationship developed with him since you first met, and as you’ve made so many people aware of his music? We met for me to interview him maybe six times over a period of four years. He understood after a while that I was serious and I was going to make the film. He became more willing to co-operate then. He said to me: “If you want to experience Detroit, you must come in the heat of summer and the dead of winter.” So that’s exactly what I did, and for him that was what proved that we were serious.
As a debut filmmaker, how much did you find yourself worrying about very practical concerns during the shoot, or were you able to sustain a belief in the value of ideas? It’s human to worry about money and that kind of thing. I used to, but then I wondered what I was really afraid of? Did I think I was going to starve to death and die in the street? You’ve got to survive, but as long as you can survive I really think you should try and pursue something that means a lot to you. I used to think you needed money in the bank as a kind of buffer. I worked for ten years and saved some money, and it felt absolutely necessary to my life. But when I made the film I used all that money, and even borrowed money from friends. But I fell in love to a very large degree with this story and it felt like I couldn’t stop, no matter what. My family asked me to stop making the film – they thought it was a crazy pursuit. They were right to a point, but they were also wrong.
When you reflect on the Malik that travelled round South Africa and first discovered this story, and the Malik that’s travelling the world on a press tour of the film, what’s changed? Before making the film I felt there were so many things I couldn’t do, simply because I’ve never tried. I knew that I couldn’t paint, but when I had to do it for the film I realised that I had my own style, and if I pursued that style no-one could blame me. It’s about developing a state of mind where you’re not constantly developing yourself for other people, because then you become too self-conscious and that can be inhibiting.
Searching for Sugarman is now showing in UK cinemas.
Text: Tom Seymour