Ahead of the transatlantic theatrical release of Searching for Sugar Man this Friday (July 27), realscreen chats to director Malik Bendjelloul (pictured) about the challenges he faced in making his Sundance-winning doc.
Stockholm-based director Malik Bendjelloul searched South Africa and South America for the right story to center his first full-length feature documentary on, before stumbling onto the decades-long, continent-spanning story of Rodriguez.
In 2006, Bendjelloul met with Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman in Cape Town, who told him about a 1970s American singer-songwriter whose album Cold Fact had wound up becoming hugely successful in South Africa.
Intriguingly, nobody knew anything about the singer’s current whereabouts – even whether he was dead or alive – despite the fact that a huge number of people owned his one album.
Searching for Sugar Man documents the quest to find out where Rodriguez came from, where he went, and whether he was still alive. It took Bendjelloul almost five years to make, and it took some clever convincing of Red Box Films’ Simon Chinn to get the film off the ground.
“I was a first time director and I was trying to get people to believe in the story, so I tried to get hold of Simon Chinn who produced Man on Wire, and I called the reception desk just to get three minutes to talk to him, to tell him the story is as good as Man on Wire,” said Bendjelloul, speaking in Sheffield.
While he thought the comparisons in storytelling were similar – namely the retelling of an extraordinary story with an exciting climax – Bendjelloul makes clear that “making a film as good as Man on Wire is quite difficult.”
Once he had Chinn on board, as well as Passion Pictures, Canfield Pictures and The Documentary Company, the next biggest challenge was in captivating an audience for 85 minutes.
“It started out as one good story, but you need 40 little small stories because every minute you need something that gets you going, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ If you’re asking people to sit down for a long time, you have to make sure it’s not boring,” he explained.
To ensure that sense of suspense, Searching for Sugar Man follows a narrative that starts out with the South African perspective of Segerman and other Rodriguez fans, who initially think that the singer is dead.
Bendjelloul says that the fans investigating the fate of the singer were initially against the filmmaker revealing that the singer is actually still alive. Nevertheless, “this is the story,” he says.
“They were working as detectives, these people, they weren’t professionals, but the result was big and what they actually found changed their lives. It was hard to believe, because it was so strange, but it was true.”
The film had its world premiere at Sundance in January, serving as the festival’s opening day international documentary.
It went on to pick up the festival’s World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary, and the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit, before opening Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK last month.
The film has its UK and U.S. theatrical launch on July 27. Check out the trailer for the doc below: