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The Oscar Documentaries, Part 2: ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

Over the next week on Art Beat, we’re talking to all of the filmmakers who have been nominated this year for an Oscar in the category of Best Documentary Feature: David France, director of “How to Survive a Plague”; Malik Bendjelloul (“Searching for Sugarman”); Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (“5 Broken Cameras”); Kirby Dick (“The Invisible War”); and Dror Moreh (“The Gatekeepers”).

In 1970, a singer-songwriter going by the name Rodriguez released an album called “Cold Fact.” It got some good reviews but sold next to nothing, and within a few years Rodriguez had returned to life as a laborer in Detroit.

But in a kind of strange celestial fluke his music was heard and caught on — big — in South Africa, where he became a major star, as well-known as the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. The South Africans, though, knew little or nothing about the man, Rodriguez. And he, it turns out, had no idea of his status in South Africa.

The story is told in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.” I recently spoke to its director Malik Bendjelloul by phone about the film — his first — and the man Rodriguez:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome, and congratulations on the nomination.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Thank you very much. Exciting times.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll bet. Just to set the scene a little bit more, tell us a little bit more about this mysterious figure Rodriguez, who I dare say very few Americans, certainly I, had never heard of him.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: It’s quite a remarkable story. So we have this man who makes an album in the early ’70s. Everyone thinks it’s going to be great. The producers are working with Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder. They say this is better. This is going to be a world smash album. And it sells 50 copies. He gives up, says, ‘I better do something else.’ So he starts to work as a construction worker in Detroit and never learns that somehow his album goes to South Africa, and in South Africa he becomes more famous than the Rolling Stones.

JEFFREY BROWN: I love those interviews with the record producers. As you say, they are kind of scratching their heads because they thought this guy was really great, but he never caught on. So it goes to this question of why one person makes it and another doesn’t.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Right. This is first question, because those songs are really good songs. When he becomes famous in South Africa, he becomes famous as Bob Dylan. I mean, he’s as famous the pantheon of rock gods. He’s still as popular as those guys, and why? Because the songs are as good if you listen to them today. You still get them. It’s really good stuff. So, yeah, that’s the first part. How come it didn’t do anything when the quality is so high.

JEFFREY BROWN: In South Africa, it’s really white Africanas who sort of grab onto him. Explain that. You make clear in the film they’re kind of chaffing under a very conservative society, isolated from the rest of the world. But what did they hear in Rodriguez’s music?

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Rodriguez was a voice of freedom. He was the first one who was singing subversive, anti-establishment lyrics. He had a major role, actually. He had an important role for society. It was a very, very censored society. it was a horrible society, this horrible place to live. Those liberal white teenagers, they felt horrible about the situation. And Rodriguez was the first guy who said, come on, guys, this is not cool, you better do something about this. He inspired a wave of new rock bands that sang out and spoke out against apartheid. He meant quite a lot to the South African society and in a real way.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re talking to all the directors of the nominated documentaries, and I’m asking everyone how did you learn about your story? When did you come into this?

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: I found the story in 2006. I was backpacking. I quit my job from Swedish television, and I brought a small camera and I went out for six months just looking for good stories and traveling around. I found six stories on the trip, and this was one of those six stories. I found it in Cape Town.

JEFFREY BROWN: You found it Cape Town, where people still were talking about this guy?

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Yeah, everyone. I was very surprised. I walked out on the streets and I was like, ‘Have you ever heard about this guy Rodriguez? They say he’s really famous here.’ And they were like, ‘What do mean have I heard about Rodriguez? He’s as famous — it’s like asking me do you know the Beatles.’

JEFFREY BROWN: And as a filmmaker you obviously had to make decisions about how to let to this story unfold, when to reveal certain things, including information about Rodriguez himself, because for the first half movie we ourselves are not even quite sure who he is or what happened to him.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: That’s right. That was pretty easy actually, because I told the story the way I heard it. I heard the story told from Sugar, the guy who found Rodriguez.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sugar is the South African who fell in love with him and then did some of the detective work.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: That’s correct. He was a fan who wanted to know how did Rodriguez die. Because in South Africa he was as famous and as dead as Jimmy Hendrix. But there were different stories on how he had died, and that was the quest, to find how did Rodriguez die. He starts to search for clues on the record sleeves or inside lyrics, he tries to find geographical references, where is this guy from. Finally he finds him, and he’s alive and he’s living in a ramshackle house in Detroit and he doesn’t know about his fame in South Africa. It’s really like a Cinderella moment, the big climax in the film is when he gets to South Africa and he doesn’t know what to expect. He’s dressed in his blue working gear and the airplane opens its door, there is a red carpet, security guards, limousines, paparazzi, and he walk around the limousine. He thinks it’s for some president or something. The security guard goes up on the tarmac and he grabs him and pulls him inside the car. On the highway, every single poster has his face and he’s everywhere. He doesn’t believe his eyes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were the major challenges for you in telling this story?

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: It took a long time. I edited for a 1,000 days. I think I had the story like 80 percent finished after six months, because it was kind of evident the way I wanted to tell the story. I wanted to see the story through the South African’s eyes. But then it’s all those small details that make a good story into a great story. I worked for three-and-a-half years with the last 20 percent of the film to try to make it as exciting as possible. I knew everyone was going to love the end, because it was this huge climax, but you had to build up the first part. I thought it was the best story I ever heard in my life, and I knew that if I don’t screw up this is going to be a great story. But it was my first film. I didn’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, it’s your first film. I see.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Yeah, I’d never done a movie before.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t think you screwed up.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Thank you. That was what I was really afraid of. Basically what I did was I just sat down in the chair in my apartment for three years and just continued, one more day. I never knew it was going to take that long. I didn’t say to myself I’m going to work for four years. I said I’m going to work for two months, but then after two months I realized I’m not finished, I have to work one more month. And then eventually it was like 48 months.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, the Oscar-nominated documentary is called “Searching for Sugar Man.” Director Malik Bendjelloul, it’s been great to talk to you.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Great to talk to you. Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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