Interview: Directing Searching For Sugar Man – Behind The Year’s Most Feted Documentary

As we head into awards season we’ll undoubtedly be hearing a lot more about Searching for Sugar Man, a favourite to scoop up many documentary awards. It already bagged a number of gongs at the International Documentary Awards. The film tells the incredible story of how the American musician Sixto┬áRodrigues, virtually unheard of at home, became incredibly important in South African culture – and he didn’t even know it himself.

If you caught the film in cinemas over the summer you’ll already know that it was one of the most touching and uplifting stories of the year. If not, here’s the trailer to get you up to speed.

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Last week, I sat down in a London hotel with the film’s director, Malik Bendjelloul, and talked to him about the making of this film, and of the music of Rodrigues. Here is some of what he told me. I have edited out any bigger spoilers.

I asked people on the street [in South Africa] about Rodrigues. “Have you seen this guy before?” and they said “What do you mean? It’s like you’ve shown me a picture of Jimi Hendrix and asked me if I’ve seen him. Of course I’ve seen him.”

Everybody told me he’s as good as Rolling Stones. Then I listened to him. Maybe it’s not as good as Sergeant Pepper, but if you listen to the first two albums of the Beatles its evident that Rodrigues is far beyond… there’s blues songs, folk songs, it’s like he invented rap. His voice is always 100% true and the lyrics are great. Rodrigues is the lost soul from that golden era. There is honesty in his voice, evident the first time you hear it.

And he is very political. I think every film is political, and this film more than most. It’s about believing in yourself which is a political statement, and it is about social injustices, the power of wealth and just because people are poor it doesn’t mean that their souls aren’t rich.

My objective was only to tell a good story but I understand that the message is political. If you spend five years of your life working on a film it’s important to know it could be inspiring to people rather than bring people down. If you’re not saying anything, then why say anything?

I first turned the camera on in 2006. There’s one single shot left from that, when Eva walks into the house. I reshot most of this material as I’d filmed it myself with really sloppy camera and every single shot was supposed to look good.

That’s how I did the editing: to qualify to be in the film, every shot needed to be something that wasn’t just a shot but a little bit special. With the images of Detroit and of South Africa, I found that I could shoot randomly or I could shoot a lot. I shot a lot and then found the little moments where something happens that is kind of exciting.

There are crane shots and things I tried to make cinematic. I knew the second part of the film was going to be fantastic because it’s the most beautiful story when you come up to this point but for the first part, you don’t know. I wanted to make that part visually interesting so you would know that it isn’t just a normal doc, that there was going to be a reward. The film has to look great because the beginning would feel so empty otherwise.

A good shot is about magic. It’s like when you’re in love with a woman. It just works. Of course you could say it’s this going on and this and this and there is some kind of movement and some kind of texture, but you do just know it when you see it.

I thought I knew the story when I started but I didn’t know the whole story as most of the people involved hadn’t spoken about it. For example, Steve Rowland [the record producer], nobody had asked him about Rodrigues for years. When I went to him and told him [about Rodrigues' success in South Africa] he didn’t know.

There was nobody who said no [to being in the film], even [Motown's] Clarence Avant said yes, and he gave me the stuff I was hoping for, in a way.

I make no judgment but I do understand that some people see Clarence as the villain. It would have been very easy for him to just say “I don’t know” but he actually becomes angry. It’s always bad to become angry on camera because then people think you are lying. I liked him, in many ways. He still had Rodrigues album in his car, his love for him was true. He had done everything he could to make him a star, I believe.

No film is ever finished but now, mentally, I have moved away from this film. I realised that when the focus is pointing towards the future it is so much more fun to live.

I knew what I wanted to do next six months ago but now there are a lot of options. Last week I was thinking that I’d go out travelling looking for a story, no pressure, just roaming the world, scouring the world until I find the story. First you find something you want to say and then you should think about how you want to say it. My next project may not be a documentary, it may not even be a film. I have ideas. I’m not lacking for ideas.

Thanks to Malik for taking the time to talk to me.

Searching for Sugar Man is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray on December 27th and comes fully recommended.

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