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People in Film: Malik Bendjelloul

Dec 25, 2012

After flying in from Sweden, Malik Bendjelloul, the director, editor and animator of the documentary film ‘Searching for Sugar Man’, received the news that his film had won the DTFF 2012 Audience Award and that he was the recipient of $50,000. Thankfully, DFI’s editorial team was on hand to capture his reaction and ask a few questions about his captivating film.

How did you discover the Rodriguez Phenomenon?

I quit my job, which was working for a Swedish television network, and then went on a voyage backpacking with a camera for six months. I was looking for stories in Africa and South America, and after going to sixteen countries – one of these countries happened to be South Africa. It was there where I met ‘Sugar’, who is depicted in the film. When I discovered the story I was like wow, and then it took a while to become something. The story was originally going to be a seven minute short for television. The story contained so much; it was touching and when I heard it I had tears in my eyes. For the first time ever, I had a story that I couldn’t tell in seven minutes.

This was your first feature film, what were the challenges of making such a project?

Rodriguez was a tricky guy, he didn’t like the camera that much, and working with someone who doesn’t like the camera is difficult for a filmmaker. But in the end, it turned out beautifully, because he remains this mystery. He is a very beautiful man, he didn’t try to be difficult—it was just that he truly didn’t like the camera.

Is this why you used panning shots to capture him walking?

Exactly, basically that was all he was doing, he was walking all these years. Everyone who I talked to in the streets knew him, he is this guy walking, and no one walks the streets here. People always saw Rodriguez on foot somewhere, often walking the worst parts of Detroit.

How does it feel to take the story of a dead man and bring him back to life?

It feels great. Sometimes I feel that this exposure would of happen anyway because his songs are that good. It is impossible that his sounds could go unheard for too long. If I wanted to take credit for something, it’s that it happens now. He is seventy years old, it’s late, but he is able to tour and experience the rewards and recognition. He was on David Letterman in front of 5 million people. However, last year in America, his neighbours still didn’t know who he was—it’s beautiful.

The shots throughout the film were stunningly composed, what influenced your filmic style?

It is all about trying to capture some magic with the camera, you film a lot, and then sit at the editing table and see where the magic is – those few seconds where something happens. I didn’t have much money so I tried to use cities, nature and exterior shots, which are always free. I tried to capture the poetry in the city scape. We also worked extensively on how the landscapes were juxtaposed to each other. We even enhanced this by choosing to film in Detroit in the winter and South Africa in the summer.

How does it feel to be recognised with the Audience Award and how will it inform your filmmaking?

It feels fantastic! I am so honoured and happy; it’s beautiful – crazy stuff. This is a huge award, the equivalent of a year worth of work. I could literally make another film with this money.

It was your first time doing animation for a film, was this process a struggle?

I couldn’t paint, I had really bad self-confidence with painting and it was my worst subject in school. It was a really, really dark moment when the funder said that you are not going to get the money that you were promised. I said ‘you promised me this money’, and they said – ‘you’re not going to get it’. I had spent every single cent I had—I was so angry. It was exactly one week after that, it was a Friday afternoon, I realised that animators always ask for a photograph. I was like, wait a minute, they should be able to paint by hand, well obviously not. I took out my favorite album and I started tracing and I did it. The feeling of autonomy is the first feeling that makes you happy. To not be controlled or enslaved by anything. This perspective was a very important idea to my filmmaking and shaped how I learned animation.

What can viewers do to help the man who gave his life to music?

You should go out and listen, find his record and spread the word. People who you tell about Rodriguez’s music are often very thankful, because it is that good—it’s really that good.

What does the future hold?

I have been thinking a lot and four times now I have started to write something—and then a week or two weeks later after doing other work–I have lost it. So now I am trying to get some extended time to work on an idea and finish it. I think I will create my next project in the same fashion as ‘Sugar Man’, travelling in order to discover a unique story.

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