Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul

The Swedish filmmaker talked about his unexpected difficulty in funding his first ever—and Oscar-nominated—feature-length documentary, Searching for Sugar Man.

UPDATE: Just before Malik Bendjelloul won the 2013 Academy Award for the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, we enjoyed a conversation about his feature film debut. The talented storyteller will be missed.

Malik Bendjelloul made his mark in filmmaking with Searching for Sugarman, which landed on the short lists for an Oscar and BAFTA award. The project by the Swedish filmmaker, who served as director, editor and animator, also picked up Sundance's Special Jury Prize, several festival Audience Awards and a DGA nod for Bendjelloul. It took him four years to make the film, after quitting his job working for a Swedish TV network and voyaging to 16 countries looking for good stories. He found one as the subject of his first feature-length documentary on the rise and fall and rise again of a Detroit folksinger in South Africa.


Tavis: Malik Bendjelloul is the documentary filmmaker behind what has been the most talked about documentary this entire award season. It’s called “Searching for Sugar Man.” The film tells the remarkable story of singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his unlikely resurrection in South Africa following a forgettable career in the U.S.

This past weekend, the film was named Best Documentary at the Producers Guild Awards and is also up for an Oscar this year. Here now, some scenes from “Searching for Sugar Man.”


Tavis: Malik, good to have you on the program.

Malik Bendjelloul: Good to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: And congratulations in advance…

Bendjelloul: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Of the ceremony and all the success you’ve already had.

Bendjelloul: Thanks.

Tavis: When I saw this story, I was completely blown away ’cause I know – I was telling you off-camera – I know some of the characters, the real-life characters, involved in this story. I’ve known them for years and had never heard about this story in my conversations with some of the personalities who you feature in this documentary.

But when I came to know of the story, my first reaction was how a story this rich could be hidden for so long. I mean, it’s one of those stories that’s like right in front of our eyes sort of to the people in Detroit, to the people in South Africa, but it takes a guy from Sweden to like bring all this together. So when you like discovered this, how amazed were you that this jewel, this gel of a story, had not been told?

Bendjelloul: No, it’s true. It’s very strange. I saw “Argo” yesterday and why haven’t we heard that story before?

Tavis: Great story, yeah.

Bendjelloul: There are a few really fantastic stories left and that kind of gives you some inspiration to find even new ones. Probably there are quite a few good ones out there because this story was, I thought, the best story I ever heard in my life and it sort of still is. It had that kind of fairy tale qualities that actually very seldom happens in reality and, this time, it really did.

Tavis: So for those who haven’t read about this story or didn’t see the wonderful “60 Minutes” profile – I loved the “60 Minutes” piece that they did about you and your work on this project. But how did a kid from Sweden, a guy from Sweden, get turned on to this story?

Bendjelloul: I was smitten, yes. I quit my job. I bought myself a real cheap like around-the-world flight ticket and I went to 16 countries for six months just backpacking, living in cheap hostels, looking for stories with a camera and my ex-girlfriend. In Cape Town, I stumbled across the story.

Tavis: This ex-girlfriend?

Bendjelloul: Yes.

Tavis: Is that why she’s ex? ‘Cause you made her travel around the world for six months [laugh]?

Bendjelloul: Right [laugh]. Don’t go there.

Tavis: You ain’t got to answer that. It’s American television. You ain’t got to answer that. Go ahead. I’m sorry.

Bendjelloul: And then I found one these characters who was working in a second-hand record shop in Cape Town and he told me the story. I was like this really happened. This is the most incredible thing ever. Then it took four years to make this movie.

Tavis: What were you doing in terms of your work, your career, and what made you quit and just buy a ticket around the world to travel looking for a story? That’s a pretty – one could call it bold or one could call it bizarre, depending on one’s perspective. But what was your life work at the time and why did you just quit your job?

Bendjelloul: I was working for a Swedish TV show – I’m Swedish – who basically did kind of spectacular stories. It was almost like CBS “60 Minutes,” but a Swedish version where we actually did travel quite a lot. After a while, I realized that travel is the most fun part of this, so why not do it for a longer time and just go off and explore?

Yeah, travel is wonderful. Everyone thinks it’s wonderful. Normally, that’s what you use your money for and here I was thinking I could maybe travel actually and make it like work almost. So I found six stories on that trip that I tried to sell to Swedish TV and this was one of the six stories.

Tavis: Are the other five nearly as good as this?

Bendjelloul: They’re pretty decent. Not as good, though, not as good.

Tavis: So what was it about the elements of this one? You found six stories. In your six months of travel, you found six great stories. Of the six, this is the best. What were the elements in this particular story that were screaming to you that this one is the best of the six?

Bendjelloul: It was quite a lot. I mean, one thing, there’s this kind of Cinderella-esque part which is basically the climax of the movie. We have a man who has been living in a ramshackle house in Detroit his whole life. He supports himself as a self-employed construction worker.

Tavis: A day laborer, basically.

Bendjelloul: A day laborer.

Tavis: Yeah.

Bendjelloul: And one day, he gets a phone call and there are people he never heard about in South Africa who tells him that you are more famous than The Rolling Stones. He’s like, sorry, you got the wrong guy. I’m Rodriguez, the construction worker.

Did you make an album called “Cold Fact?” Yeah, I made an album called “Cold Fact” 28 years ago. In South Africa, that album is more famous than “Abbey Road.” He said, but I didn’t sell more than 50 copies. In South Africa, that album is more famous than “Abbey Road.” Then they tell him you have to come here.

He’s working in his, you know, dressed in his blue collar working gear. You will not be disappointed and he says I’m not gonna go there. Just come here. You will – please, just come to South Africa. You’ll see for yourself. You know, he’s in his late fifties. You know, he’s a construction worker.

The airplane opens its door and it’s a red carpet, security guards, limousine, paparazzis. He’s like walking around the limo because he thinks it’s for some president. So security guards goes out on the tarmac and grabs him and pulls him inside the car. And he looks out of the window when they’re on the highway and, you know, every lamppost is Rodriguez, Rodriguez is everywhere. The whole city is like covered in his face.

Did you see the “Truman” show? The Jim Carrey movie? This is like that story, but it’s true. And that was just one part of the story. There were quite a few stories. There are a lot of stuff more actually to this story.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that here in the states, to your earlier point, he puts out a couple of albums and they tank. They go nowhere. But in South Africa, he sold a half million copies of this record. He is, to your point, he’s an icon. He’s a hero. They love him in South Africa. Of all the places in the world, why did his music catch hold there? Because at the time, he’s putting out music here.

The times are pretty tumultuous here as well, certainly for African Americans and for other people of color. People always say the best of times, the good old days. These were not the good old days for people of color in this country and they certainly weren’t good times in South Africa. I get that. But how could it not catch on here, but it took off like nobody’s business in South Africa?

Bendjelloul: Right. It was big. I mean, he became the most sold artist ever literally and why? It’s so strange that this happens. It’s hard to explain why. One reason was that he was actually not heard at all here in America because who hear him immediately understands.

It’s very accessible music. It’s very easy to start to love. But if no one hears it, then, of course, it never starts. In South Africa, he’s somebody who was started to be played on the radio and…

Tavis: Let me jump in here right quick. Why did it not get heard? Why did Rodriguez not get heard here in the states?

Bendjelloul: I think one reason was that he sold 50 copies. If he would have sold 1,000 copies, which is also a giant failure, then it would have started good. Another reason is that they told him you have to – Rodriguez? That does not work. You need to change your name. Even Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, you know. You have to do that.

And he said, “I’m Rodriguez. I’m not going to change because you want me to.” Then they said, “You don’t understand. You have to change because that’s the way this industry works.” They said the first single was released under the name Rod Riguez. There was like this one idea [laugh]. Okay, we do it like this.

Tavis: Smi-ley, yeah.

Bendjelloul: Yes, that way. But then he said no. This is ridiculous. I am Rodriguez. You take me or leave me. I mean, I’m not gonna adapt myself to some stupid industry. That was one of the reasons why.

Tavis: So in South Africa, for those who’ve not seen the film, what were the conditions in South Africa that allowed this record to take off there?

Bendjelloul: One reason that it became that famous, he inspired freedom in this time in South Africa. This was the apartheid era. It was grim. You weren’t allowed to do anything. It was a very, very sensitive society. If you sang stuff that was anti-establishment, you were banned, completely banned. It couldn’t be played. Rodriguez actually was banned from radio playing.

They actually took the library copy and they scratched the record. I think maybe you’re gonna see this. They scratched the record and you couldn’t play it. But the album was sold and generally it’s believed that’s a mistake by the censure board because, if you sang stuff like that in this time in South Africa, you couldn’t be heard. And Rodriguez was heard by hundreds of thousands of people.

He was singing stuff like the system is gonna fall soon to an angry young tune. People had never heard something like that, like real subversive messages, and that was really why he became important because he was really saying something important.

Tavis: What did you learn spending time with him? What did you learn about the source, the genesis, of that kind of rich lyrical content? Because to your point now, what made this thing take off in South Africa during those very subversive times was the lyrical content of what he was saying.

His lyrics were speaking to their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their aspirations. So that’s what makes it take off there. But what’s the source, the genesis, of that kind of lyrical content coming out of this guy, Rodriguez?

Bendjelloul: He was extremely socially conscious. Actually, when his music career failed, he actually went into politics. He tried to run for mayor and did run for mayor. He went out on the streets with petitions and tried to get people to vote. Actually, he did get like 7,000 votes which is pretty crazy for a guy without any campaign machine around him. I think politics he still talks about, that he’s a political singer more than anything.

He had this kind of – the message was more important maybe for him than the melodies. For me, it’s the other way around. I think he’s the most beautiful songwriter ever. I think the melodies are just – you melt when you hear his songs. But really, it was all about the message inside those lyrics.

Tavis: So he runs for mayor and engages himself politically. So this would have been during the Coleman Young era back in Detroit. He wouldn’t have had a chance against Coleman Young back in the day. For all the folk watching in Detroit tonight, they understand that. So I understand why he doesn’t win a mayoral race in Detroit at that time, but how did he live in Detroit?

I mean, this story was so remarkable for me because he’s living in plain sight. He’s living in plain view. He’s, to your point, in a ramshackle house in Detroit, he’s a day laborer in Detroit, he’s an icon on the other side of the world. But he’s just a regular guy doing blue collar work in Detroit.

How does he live in such plain sight when – I mean, I take it back in the day they didn’t have the internet. There’s no way that you could be that big in South Africa and live in plain open sight and nobody in Detroit would know who you were ’cause the internet would out you in that way.

So there was no internet back then, so maybe I’ve answered my own question. But tell me more about how he could be so famous there and so regular, so unknown, on the streets of Detroit.

Bendjelloul: Right. I think there are three reasons. The first one you said, internet, the time before internet. But also, in South Africa there was no communication with South Africa and the rest of the world. South Africa was blacklisted. It was a boycott.

So they didn’t have any contact and the South Africans didn’t really look for him because, even if they would have found him, they wouldn’t be able to bring him to South Africa. It was forbidden to go to South Africa. It was a blacklisted country. Queen went there actually and played in some city and it was an outrage in the world.

You couldn’t go to South Africa. South Africa was isolated and then Rodriguez in Detroit was also a particularly isolated man. He didn’t even have a telephone. He was living in a house kind of cut off from the rest of society.

Those three things, no internet and those two isolated entities kind of made this thing happen. It can’t possibly happen again, I guess.

Tavis: So in your piece, we discover a number of neighbors who basically thought he was just, you know, a little strange guy, but a guy walking around with his guitar all the time. But they didn’t know anything about who he was. The guy lived in the same place for like 40 years and nobody in the neighborhood had any idea of the acclaim that this guy had around the world.

How did he navigate all of those years, three or four decades of living in that kind of artistic obscurity?

Bendjelloul: I think it was pretty hard because I think he had a dream of being a singer and never stopped. His family had told me that he was always playing the guitar. He was sitting in his bathroom in his house because that was the place for the best acoustics and also a place where he could be on his own for a while.

Tavis: So he played in the bathroom.

Bendjelloul: He was playing in the bathroom and all those years he was actually walking with a guitar on his back. Everyone knew of him because he was very present. He was walking. He didn’t have wheels in this city of – you know, it’s the car capital of the world.

Tavis: He’s in Motor City, but he’s walking.

Bendjelloul: He didn’t really have proper payments, but he was always on foot, always walking everywhere, and everyone was who is this guy? People thought of him maybe even as a homeless person because he was always out on the street. He wasn’t homeless, but he was very much present in the state as this shadow, as this kind of mysterious black-dressed guy, always black.

He had black hat, black sunglasses, black coat, black guitar on his back. He never played that guitar because no one ever asked him to play that guitar because no one knew he was a singer.

Tavis: How did you find him and how did he receive you when you showed up?

Bendjelloul: Another reason why he was never successful was that, on tours, the few times he played, he was playing with the back to the audience.

Tavis: Well, so did Miles Davis, but he became a star, though [laugh].

Bendjelloul: Yeah, he was a star. Miles Davis was a star when he first started doing that. Rodriguez was a nobody and he was playing with his back toward them. The industry said who is this guy? We’re gonna go with the other guy.

Tavis: Before I ask you another question, though, what was his reasoning, his rationale, for playing with his back to the audience?

Bendjelloul: Well, I asked him and he said, you know, it’s good for hearing. The thing was, when we started to film because he – okay, when I got to Detroit for the first time, his family said, yes, you can come here. You can meet us. You can meet his daughters. You can probably meet him too, but you’re not going to be able to film him because he doesn’t do that. I was like that’s a problem. You’re not going to make a documentary like that [laugh]. Then when I came to him, he was very friendly.

I mean, he liked to meet in like places where there’s a lot of noise like cafes and stuff like that where I knew I couldn’t really film because it’s too noisy. Every time the camera came in the room, he was very wary. He was very aware of the camera and, you know, he looked more at the camera than he looked at me because he didn’t like the camera. He had this thing.

Then the first time, I didn’t film at all actually. No interview, I just filmed him a few times when he walked in the street. The second time, actually – because we became friends kind of. The second we met, he actually came to Sweden and visited me in my home city in Stockholm, but I didn’t film anything that time either.

Then the third time we met was in the winter in Detroit a few months later and that’s the first time I tried to make an interview and it was very, very hard. After two minutes, he said that’s it. I mean, we didn’t even get started. I didn’t ask any questions yet.

So what I did was every year for four years, I go back to Detroit and I did another short interview, you know, a couple of minutes, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. And after four years, finally we had something that can work. But it was really kind of a struggle.

Tavis: I mean, you’re getting 10 minutes a year…

Bendjelloul: Yeah, that’s not a lot.

Tavis: For four years, that’s not a lot. This interview is 30 minutes long.

Bendjelloul: Yeah, it was hard. The thing was that he was always – he was struggling. He wanted to help me. He just didn’t like the camera. It was pretty much a kind of frightening situation to have a camera in your face. You know, they say the camera steals your soul.

Tavis: Oh, yeah. That can be true for some people. So when I got a chance to see the piece, your work and even the “60 Minutes” piece about your work, I was stunned at how humble he is and I asked myself if I could have gone 30 or 40 years knowing my gift, knowing my talent, walking around with a guitar on my back all this time and nobody ever really appreciating what I was offering in this country while I’m being celebrated around the world.

But I didn’t detect any bitterness in him. Did he fool me or is that the way he really is?

Bendjelloul: He’s a different kind of a guy. He really is. I never met anyone like him and I think he’s just the most inspiring person I ever met in my life. I’m honest now. I really, really mean that because it’s true he doesn’t have any bitterness.

The reason is that he almost this kind of Zen-like qualities about him. He studied philosophy. I mean, he knows. He’s a wise man in a real way. I think he came to places where most people never ever come, you know, in a mental state where most people never come.

Success is not only one thing. It’s not only having a nice house in Beverly Hills and driving a nice Mercedes. He knew he was a lucky man. He had three wonderful daughters that he loved and who loved him and who became really, really powerful people there.

They used the libraries and the museums and the arts exhibition halls as their kindergartens and they all became, without any money, without being part of society, so to say, they became really knowledgeable, inspiring people with a very rich inner life. And it kind of proves that you don’t need material stuff to become someone big on an emotional level.

Tavis: How is he managing all this exposure and success and awards and recognition, Academy Award nominations and now concerts? He’s gone back to South Africa, he’s played in Detroit, he’s sought after around the country now on tour. How’s he handling all of this?

Bendjelloul: He still, first off, the money he gets, he literally gives it to his family because he never started to consume. Here he was living in this house his whole life and he still lives in this house. I think he’s gonna stay in this house forever. It’s a $100 house that he bought in Detroit in 1970.

You can think that it’s crazy, but I don’t think it is crazy. I think it’s really, really wise what he’s doing because, if you never start to consume, if you never need stuff, you are free. Everyone says I need to work, I need to work and work and work so I can buy my freedom.

But the truth is, freedom is free. You don’t need money to be free. You can just say if you don’t need stuff, you’re always free. It’s like an alternative way of living where it is all about consuming and all about – you know, it’s not the richest guy who wins maybe. It’s maybe someone else who wins.

Tavis: So let me ask you in my last question. Let me ask you to set your modesty aside. I see it and I feel it, but how good do you feel about the fact that you, through your persistence, through your discipline, your dedication, your sacrifice, have been able to bring this story? And it’s not just a story about a musician. You’ve just laid it out.

It’s a story about consumerism, it’s a story about freedom, it’s a story about what matters most in life, it’s a story about how not to be bitter, it’s a story about never giving up on your dreams. There’s so much wrapped up into this wonderful documentary. How do you feel about being able to bring this to life?

Bendjelloul: Well, I think it would have happened anyway because the music is that good and it’s impossible to hide something forever that is that good.

Tavis: But it didn’t happen for 40 years, though. You’re being way too modest.

Bendjelloul: I know. It’s very, very strange because every year you have a rediscovery, 50 new discoveries, and they’re never as good as this, I believe. I think this is one of the last pieces of our time. The only thing I do take credit for is that it happens right now.

He’s 70 years old. He can perform, he’s touring everywhere over the world, places like Letterman. You know, he can literally do this and, 10 years later, maybe he wouldn’t be able to do it in some ways. So I think that’s…

Tavis: Timing is important.

Bendjelloul: Timing is important and that is a beautiful thing that right now he gets the reward in a big way and all over the world. He’s gonna tour in South Africa playing to 50,000 people next week.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So I asked him to set his modesty aside. He didn’t quite do that, but you know how these Swedes are [laugh]. He doesn’t live in Stockholm for no reason. The movie is called “Searching for Sugar Man,” the most talked about documentary of this entire award season. The CD, the soundtrack, “Searching for Sugar Man,” went to number one on one of the important Billboard charts.

So it’s an amazing story, it’s an amazing soundtrack and, before we get to Academy Award night and my hunch before you see this guy get up on the stage, I hope that’s the case at least, you might want to check this out so you won’t be in the dark about what this project is all about when the Academy Awards are up on us.

Malik, congratulations. Whether you win the Academy Award or not, you’ve done a wonderful piece of work here and I’m just honored to meet you.

Bendjelloul: Likewise. Thank you too.

Tavis: Glad to have you on, my friend.

Bendjelloul: Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm