Malik Bendjelloul was a Swedish filmmaker who won the 2013 Academy Award for best documentary with his debut feature, Searching for Sugar Man, about a forgotten American balladeer who, unwittingly, had achieved fame halfway around the world.
A largely inexperienced filmmaker when he started the project, Bendjelloul edited Searching for Sugar Man in his Stockholm flat and paid for most of it himself.
The film tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Detroit who recorded two blues-tinged folk-rock albums under the single name Rodriguez in the early 1970s and then vanished from the music scene, a casualty of poor publicity and meagre sales.
For decades he supported himself and three daughters doing unskilled jobs, unaware that his music – songs of protest and a life of struggle rendered in a heartfelt tenor – had resonated in South Africa. Victims and opponents of apartheid especially admired his anthems of fighting oppression. The film takes its title from Sugar Man, a song about a drug dealer that appeared on Rodriguez’s 1970 album, Cold Fact.
The film unearths Rodriguez’s tale in the manner of a detective story, telling of the search for information about the singer that had been started by a fan, Stephen Segerman, a Cape Town record shop owner. Reviewing the film, critic Manohla Dargis called it “a hugely appealing documentary about fans, faith and an enigmatic Age of Aquarius musician who burned bright and hopeful before disappearing.”
Bendjelloul was born in Ystad, at Sweden’s southern tip, on 14 September, 1977. He grew up in Angelholm, about 85 miles to the north-west.
Published sources say his father, Hacène Bendjelloul, was an Algerian doctor and his mother, the former Veronica Schildt, was a translator and painter.
As a youth in the early 1990s, Malik appeared in a recurring role in the Swedish TV series Ebba and Didrik, about siblings in a seaside village. (The director was his uncle.) He studied journalism at the University of Kalmar (now Linnaeus University), and went on to make short documentary features for Swedish TV featuring interviews with musicians such as Björk and Elton John. Restless, in 2006, he quit his job and travelled to South Africa in search of an original story for a film of his own.
In Cape Town he met Segerman, who in 1997 had created a website, The Great Rodriguez Hunt, hoping to gather information about the singer. When Bendjelloul heard the story of Rodriguez, he was astonished.
“This was the greatest, the most amazing, true story I’d ever heard, an almost archetypal fairytale,” he said in a 2012 interview. “It’s a perfect story. It has the human element, the music aspect, a resurrection and a detective story.”
Bendjelloul’s body was found in his Stockholm flat. He is believed to have taken his own life.
• Copyright NYT 2014.