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The New Review: FILM: Searching for Malik Bendjelloul: In May Swedish film-maker Malik Bendjelloul shocked everyone by taking his own life. How could a man who had won an Oscar for his debut, the stunning Searching for Sugar Man - who had the independence of mind to refuse Hollywood, who was in a happy relationship - do such a thing? Talking to the people closest to him, Andrew Anthony attempts to make sense of a tragedy

July 13, 2014

Andrew Anthony



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 Sixto Rodriguez, a forgotten Detroit singer-songwriter from the early 1970s who, unbeknown to him, was a huge star in South Africa during the apartheid era. It was the debut of a young and immensely talented Swedish film-maker named Malik Bendjelloul, who had come across Rodriguez's story while travelling in Africa, looking for stories to turn into short TV pieces.

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 Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning producer of Man on Wire to come on board. Chinn guided the film to open at the Sundance film festival in January 2012, where it won the special jury prize and audience award for best international documentary. Over the following 13 months it went on to win a string of awards across the world, including a Bafta for best documentary. Then on 24 February 2013, it cemented its success by picking up the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

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 Sweden he became something of a celebrity, though he had little interest in fame, while in Hollywood he received a series of lucrative film-making offers. But he was intent on maintaining his independence, opting to move to New York and work on a script for a feature film he wanted to make that was inspired by the story of the South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony. It was one of an unknown number of projects he was destined never to make. On 13 May this year Bendjelloul jumped in front of a train in the Stockholm underground system. The 36-year-old with a passion for life's myriad stories had elected to bring his own to an unaccountably premature close.

"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 Johar Bendjelloul, gave a statement in response to media speculation that his younger brother had been depressed for a short period. "But the question of why," he said, "no one can answer. It will ache in my chest the rest of my life."

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 Brittany Huckabee. "They met during the awards season," says Chinn. "He was with her right up until the end. I've spent time with her recently and she's obviously devastated. They were working on projects together. They were going to co-direct. . ." He trails off, shaking his head.

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 Stockholm. "He had a tremendous personal aura."

"He was the very opposite of the gorilla alpha male type," says Karin af Klintberg, a leading figure in Swedish television. Klintberg says she first met Bendjelloul when he came to work for her at Kobra, an arts programme on SVT (Sweden's equivalent to the BBC), and she liked him immediately because he put her in mind of Bambi. "He was so very humble," she 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 Hollywood offer. . . or I will become a Hollywood casualty!"

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, Peter Schildt, who was a mentor to the aspiring director.

He clearly made an impact - when he arrived at Linnaeus University seven years later to study journalism and media production, his course leader, Per-Axel Gjores, told him how much he admired the series. Very quickly Gjores realised that Bendjelloul was not just a former child star, but an exceptional student, and they formed an abiding friendship.

In what might be seen as a dry-run for his film on Rodriguez, Bendjelloul tracked down a Swedish rock star named Jakob Hellman who had made one bestselling album and disappeared. The resulting interview was broadcast on Swedish TV's premier music show. Before his final year, he worked as a summer intern for Ericzen's Barracuda production company. So impressed was Ericzen by Bendjelloul's precocious talent that he sent the novice off with a camera to make a documentary about the Royal Swedish Ballet on a six-week tour of America. It was shown on SVT, and Gjores now teaches the programme to his students as a first-rate example of one-man film-making.

There followed a first job at Barracuda, followed by a position as a reporter on SVT's leading culture show, Kobra. In the course of this work he interviewed major stars like Elton John, Bjork and Kraftwerk. "He looked like a young boy who had seen a hot-air balloon for the first time whenever he went into a room," says Ericzen. "When you talk to people with big egos they have a tendency to walk all over those kinds of people but that didn't happen with him because if he did a profile, and someone was rude to him, he'd just keep going. He saw things in people they didn't know themselves. That's not something you can acquire."

In 2006 he decided to quit Kobra and go travelling in search of stories. Over the course of six months he travelled to 16 countries across South America and Africa.

It was while he was in Cape Town that he met a record shop owner called Stephen "Sugar" Segerman who told him about Sixto Rodriguez, a folk-rock singer who had recorded two albums, Cold Fact in 1970 and the following year Coming from Reality. These were huge hits among white South Africans, particularly liberals opposed to apartheid. Though in a divided country, Rodriguez meant little to the black population, it is said that the black anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was also a big fan.

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 Cat Stevens or even Bob Dylan. When apartheid was at its height in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa was quite cut off from the rest of the world and, in the pre-internet era, information was not easy to gather. In such a climate rumours flourished. The word went around that Rodriguez never recorded a third album because he had killed himself - on stage.

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 Detroit. What's more they learned that he was unaware of his fame in South Africa, and he had received no royalties or payment on the hundreds of thousands of records he sold. In 1998 Segerman helped organise for Rodriguez to tour South Africa and, in an emotional introduction to the post-apartheid nation, he played to sell-out crowds.

Bendjelloul returned to Sweden raving about the story. For a while there were plans to make just a small piece for Kobra, which then turned into a one-hour special. Finally a friend in the business suggested that perhaps he should seek funding to make a feature documentary. So after securing backing from SVT and the Swedish Film Institute, Bendjelloul set about putting a film together.

He paid his first visit to Detroit to get what he expected to be the key element of his film - an interview with Rodriguez. But the singer, who had spent much of the previous four decades working in construction, was reluctant to speak, and when he did finally accede to talk on film, he gave stilted, monosyllabic answers.

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 Simon Chinn's office and left a message saying that he had a film that was better than Man on Wire

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 London office, he found his defences falling away. "I remember thinking at the end of the meeting that I'd really like to work with this guy."

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 Nick Fraser, who as series editor of the BBC's celebrated Storyville strand has probably been responsible for the commission and dissemination of more first-rate documentaries than anyone else on the planet.

"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 Michigan. He had enjoyed some success in Australia, where he toured in 1979 and 1981. In omitting these details from the film, Bendjelloul was accused of manipulating the picture to provoke greater sympathy for Rodriguez. But the point was how Rodriguez was perceived in South Africa - a situation of which he'd been entirely ignorant - and how he dealt with rejection in his homeland of America.

To Bendjelloul, Rodriguez represented the ideal of a committed artist, someone who maintained his self-respect and dignity despite the indifference of the world around him. "I think he was inspired by Rodriguez," says Chinn. "I think he decided to turn the absence of money to his advantage."

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 Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin, who had won the Oscar for best documentary the previous year for their film Undefeated. The three men struck up a close relationship. Lindsay recalls how from time to time during lulls in the creative process he and his partner would raise the possibility of doing something a little more conventional for the money. "And Malik was always like 'No, no, you have to stay with what you want to do!'"

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 New York in March this year, and they thought that they detected a drop in his confidence level. "Maybe it's just in retrospect and adding more significance than at the time," says Lindsay, "but that night he just seemed a bit off, not weird or crazy or anything, just not himself."?In April Bendjelloul returned to Stockholm. Klintberg met up with him to discuss some short-term work while he was in town. In the end, he decided to withdraw from the project. "He was himself. For me he was calm and happy," she says.

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, Brittany Huckabee, told me this:

"Malik and I were together almost constantly for the past year. I've retraced his steps from the moment I saw him off to Sweden this spring with plans to join him a few weeks later. And I have seen absolutely no evidence he was planning or had ever considered suicide. He wasn't disengaged from life. Quite to the contrary: in his final week he was making plans to move forward with his screenplay and to travel for a new documentary project.

"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 Ingmar Bergman. "Not the same kind of artist," he explains, "but of the same level artistically. He had it. He had that special thing."

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.

Captions:

Main image: Bendjelloul and his partner, film-maker Brittany Huckabee, at the Oscars in 2013, where Searching for Sugar Man (below) won best documentary.

Left: Bendjelloul in the much-loved Swedish TV show Ebba och Didrik, which made him a child star aged 10. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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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Source: Observer (UK)


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