Documentary feature film-making, if done well, is a long, arduous and very often thankless task. There is no script to speak of, no blueprint or guidelines. All there is to work on is the shapeless chaos of the world, or a particular part of the world, out of which the film-maker hopes to fashion a coherent structure, arresting images, compelling characters and a story that excites and touches people. In terms of reaching a large and appreciative audience, it's almost always a study in failure.
There are, though, a select group of exceptions, narrative documentaries that enjoy critical recognition and the special approval of a cinematic release. One such film was Searching for Sugar Man, a story about
So struck was he by the tale of this lost musician that he went off on his own and gathered the material, directed, filmed some sections himself, wrote incidental music, added his own illustrations, made the title sequence and finally edited it for 1,000 days. During filming Bendjelloul ran out of money and, as he could no longer afford Super 8 film, he shot some of the remaining footage on a smartphone using the iPhone app 8mm Vintage Camera.
Several other setbacks hit the film, including a bitter dispute with the original producer. But Bendjelloul pushed on and managed to persuade
A tall, thin man with beguiling brown eyes and charmingly diffident manner, Bendjelloul had reached the summit of the documentary business at his first attempt. In
"It's deeply shocking for everyone. Totally unexpected," a still dumbfounded Chinn told me a few weeks after the suicide. The film-maker's brother, the journalist
As far as his friends are aware, Bendjelloul had no known history of mental illness. Aside from the buoyant state of his career, he was also happily in a relationship with the American film-maker
Nearly all suicides are a mystery, but some are more mysterious than others. And as none of the main aspects of Bendjelloul's life seemed anything less than extremely promising, his death has left his friends, family and the film world struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible.
"Someone said, 'If you spoke five words to Malik, you fell in love with him,'" the director's close friend Bobo Ericzen told me when I met him recently in
"He was the very opposite of the gorilla alpha male type," says
The humility, shot through with playful humour, was in evidence in a video interview Malik gave to a reporter before he won the Oscar. Asked what his plans were for the future, he said: "Either I go travelling again looking for a story the same way I found this. . . or I'll go with the best
That last comment was said in jest, though the irony may now seem prescient. Yet it's unlikely that Bendjelloul was a victim of success or public exposure, not least because his life had consistently featured both. The son of an Algerian-born doctor, Bendjelloul was a child star at 10, when he appeared in a much-loved Swedish TV show called Ebba och Didrik, directed by his uncle,
He clearly made an impact - when he arrived at
In what might be seen as a dry-run for his film on Rodriguez, Bendjelloul tracked down a Swedish rock star named
There followed a first job at Barracuda, followed by a position as a reporter on SVT's leading culture show,
In 2006 he decided to quit
It was while he was in
In any case, Rodriguez made a kind of protest music that struck a chord with a frustrated generation to whom he was the equal of
But in the mid-1990s Segerman and a friend began to investigate what had really happened, and they discovered that Rodriguez was still alive and living in obscurity in
Bendjelloul returned to
He paid his first visit to
Bendjelloul returned several times over the next few years but on each occasion Rodriguez was no more forthcoming. Only towards the end of the process did he realise that he might be able to make a virtue out of a necessity, by allowing the singer to retain his almost mythic quality.
Better still, he was able to turn interviews with Rodriguez's grownup daughters into highly emotional testaments to the integrity of the singer's life and beliefs. They said what their father couldn't. They articulated all the difficulties and ideals of which Rodriguez was too private and proud to speak.
The film briefly points a suggestive finger at an American record company owner who may have been less than assiduous in paying the South African royalties to Rodriguez, but it's not a journalistic investigation. It's much more interested in warming emotions than cold facts.
Unfortunately, although the filming had gone well, the funding had turned into a disaster. Bendjelloul felt unsupported by the producer assigned to him by the SFI, and she had not managed to sell the film rights to anyone abroad. The pair entered into a dispute as Bendjelloul tried to get back control over his film. To make matters worse, he showed an early version to the SFI, which told him that it was hardly worthy of a half-hour TV show, and promptly withdrew funding.
With no money, having devoted three years to the project, and locked in a failed relationship with his producer, Bendjelloul realised he needed someone to extract him and his film from the financial morass. So he phoned up
Chinn describes himself as a natural sceptic, and he knew that music-based documentaries had a bad track record at the box office. But when he met Bendjelloul a few weeks later in his
But it was seeing the film that clinched the deal.
"I definitely had a kind of goosebump moment, when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got a bit teary. It was extraordinary to me that nobody who had put seed money into the film had felt that it was worthy of further financing."
As Chinn started to unpick the contractual tangle, and sever Bendjelloul's ties to his original producer, he also put out the feelers to the Sundance film festival. The same day that the deal to free Bendjelloul was completed, Sundance told Chinn they wanted Searching for Sugar Man to open the festival.
From that moment onwards the film snowballed towards the Oscars, though first of all the perfectionist director had to be persuaded to stop working on the film. One of the jury members at Sundance was
"I thought the film was a fairytale," he says. "That's not a criticism. It's very shaped and very interesting. It's terrifically edited. You have to imagine how boring the film could have been had it been made by someone without his tenderness and inspiration. You get swept along in this great strange story."
Fraser was not alone. Not only were his fellow jurors unanimous over awarding Searching for Sugar Man's special jury prize, but pretty much every audience and judging panel that saw the film was similarly swept away.
There were critics, of course. Some pointed out that the documentary was not the whole story - as if the whole story was ever a viable option. Rodriguez, they noted, had not been consigned to oblivion in
Chinn believes that in turn Bendjelloul has become an inspiration to aspiring film-makers struggling with a lack of funds. Fraser agrees. "Making feature documentaries is incredibly hard. You either have to have a massive trust fund or take this existential risk. You can't have a family. You can't have a mortgage. The idea that you could turn a 10-minute film on a Swedish arts programme into an Oscar-winning documentary, it's either folly or extraordinary bravery."
But having lived from hand to mouth for years in pursuit of the film's realisation, Bendjelloul was then confronted with a very different set of problems: what to do now that everyone was looking to support him?
"You can't reliably find another story as good as that," says Fraser. "That's the problem with documentary films. Of course you can't say that had anything to do with his death - suicide is normally caused by other things. But the pressure must have been enormous."
During his year-long hoovering up of prizes, Bendjelloul befriended the American film-makers
The pair put Bendjelloul in touch with their manager and agent, but he decided he didn't want representation. "He was like 'I'm just going to make the movies I want to make, so why do I need to read other scripts and all that stuff?'"
The last time Lindsay and Martin met up with Bendjelloul was in
Gjores received an email that was out of character towards the end of April, in which the film-maker complained about insomnia, but he had further contact that was quite normal. His friends are reluctant to speak in detail about the final few weeks of his life, because they don't want to indulge in or encourage empty or misplaced speculation. But after some reflection, his girlfriend,
"Malik and I were together almost constantly for the past year. I've retraced his steps from the moment I saw him off to
"He was anything but a tortured artist. His creativity came from a place of light, never darkness, and he truly sought to uplift and inspire the world with his work."
Among the many sorrows stemming from Bendjelloul's early death is the knowledge that there will be no more of that work. As Gjores says: "I have to confess that after the first personal reaction, I really felt so sad because of all the films and all the things he would have been doing and creating and we will never, ever see them. Because he made such magical stuff."
Gjores agrees with Klintberg, who said she believed that Bendjelloul would have become the next
What Bendjelloul might have gone on to achieve is of course another form of speculation. What we do know is that, almost single-handedly, he made a film that touched people all over the world. And in doing so he reanimated the career of a musician many of his fans believed was dead. At the age of 70, Rodriguez played at last year's Glastonbury festival as part of a global tour. Rodriguez got it right when he said in a statement in response to Bendjelloul's death: "He was a very talented man and a hard-working artist." The thing, though, that most compounds the loss is the resounding sense that he was a lovely human being too.
Continued from previous page
Main image: Bendjelloul and his partner, film-maker
Left: Bendjelloul in the much-loved Swedish TV show Ebba och Didrik, which made him a child star aged 10.
Bendjelloul photographed in 2012 (top) and, above, Rodriguez in the 70s. The musician said in a statement in response to Bendjelloul's death: 'He was a very talented man and a hard-working artist.' Andrew H Walker
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