Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul attended the premier of Searching for Sugar Man at Cinemaxx on October 5. Before the film began, the thirty-five year old filmmaker, exuding boyish charm, spoke enthusiastically in basic German about having visited Hamburg before. He spontaneously shared the information that he had once had a German girlfriend. Then he sat down to watch the film with the rest of the moviegoers.
After the film ended, Bendjelloul switched to English to speak with the audience. Basking in the afterglow of the feel-good movie, Bendjelloul’s congeniality and warmth spoke right to the audience’s hearts when he told about his own personal journey in the Sugar Man saga. He explained that as a filmmaker of documentaries for Swedish TV he had been in search of the perfect story. He found it when he went to South Africa and hea*rd the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Rodriguez. Initially his Swedish producers had supported him in his project. However, as the years went by and the documentary was close to being finished, he lost their financial backing. Out of desperation and with the help of good software he did both the animation (a child could do it, he confessed) and the score (with a $200 program) himself. By the time it was finished, the interest of the Swedish Film Industry had completely waned; he was told the documentary wasn’t good enough and would require a major overhaul.
Reluctantly he went off to work on other projects to earn money to survive. Not completely giving up, though, he approached producers Simon Chinn and John Battsekthe who loved the film and sent it off to the Sundance Festival. There, much to Bendjelloul’s amazement, it was immediately accepted and even chosen to show on opening night; there was no time (or need) for that rewrite. (It won the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary.)
As a member of the audience I asked about Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival where I had experienced firsthand the magical impact of Searching for Sugar Man on opening night. The director spoke elatedly about the festival where Rodriquez had made a surprise visit blowing away the hometown Michigan crowd. Almost as an aside Bendjelloul coyly added that Michael Moore is, after all, on the Oscar Committee; Searching for Sugar Man is entered in the upcoming Academy Award competition. Rodriquez, the director explained, wasn’t able to come to Hamburg because he was on a concert tour on the West Coast of the U.S. The singer had recently even made an appearance on the David Letterman Show. Bendjelloul revealed he had spent the artist’s seventieth birthday with him in San Francisco, working, not celebrating. Sixto Rodriquez’s career is now in full swing, yet he has no agent and no manager, just a seventy-year-old, female friend helping him out. Rodriquez’s secret, the filmmaker confided, is that he has no ego. Rodriquez himself once humbly claimed, „You want to know the secret to life? You just have to keep breathing in and out.“ The audience filed out of the theater along with Bendjelloul. He went to mingle with his fans in the lobby, amiable, personable, even after international acclaim, clearly the other heart and soul of this feel good movie.