On May 13, 2014 Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul took his own life just a year after winning the most prestigious award that a documentary film-maker can win. In February of 2013, his film Searching for Sugar Man won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.
The documentary is one of the best I’ve seen. It tells the true story of a little known 1970s Mexican-American folk singer named Rodriguez. Rodriguez had tremendous talent but his album flopped in the United States and he abandoned his musical career for a life of manual labour. At the same time, unbeknownst to the artist, his album gained a cult following in South Africa. Not just a cult following – he was bigger than the Rolling Stones and Elvis. But Rodriguez didn’t know (nor was he paid for the album sales). Meanwhile, his fans in South Africa assumed he was dead, that he had committed suicide by lighting himself on fire as rock stars are prone to do. Only in the late 1990s, with the emergence of the Internet and the persistence of a couple of South African journalists, did his fans discover that Rodriguez was, in fact, alive and well…and Rodriguez discovered that he was a star.
It’s a joyous and inspirational film. These are the sort of qualities that I tend not to like in a film. But because of Bendjelloul’s skillful direction, it never comes across as trite or contrived or sentimental. Perhaps it helps that Rodriguez is such a humble man. Even after he discovered his stardom, he continues to live in the same house he bought decades ago, continues to make a living doing manual labour, and has given most of the money he got from recent concert tours in South Africa to his children. This story is not about fame and success and wealth. This film is about art and talent finally being recognized.
Listening to director Bendjelloul’s commentary track on the Blu-Ray, I discovered just how much he went through to get this film made. This was a film he largely financed, filmed and edited himself over the course of many years, with no assurance it would ever get any distribution or seen by anyone. More than just telling a compelling story, the film is a showcase of Bendjelloul’s tremendous talents. Documentary film-making is an art, an art of selection and deletion. It is never simply a “documentation.” The clever construction of this particular film (which does not disclose the truth about Rodriguez until midway through the film) required that Bendjelloul select, edit and coach his interviewees (to speak of Rodriguez in the past tense, for example). Some have criticized the fact that the film conveniently deletes certain facts. For example, Bendjelloul never mentions Rodriquez’s late 70s success in Australia, giving the impression that it was only in South Africa that he had any success at all. However, I think this deletion adds, not detracts, from the finished product. The construction of filmic truth is more important than historic fact, even in a documentary. The end result is a film with incredible pathos, and if Bendjelloul had mentioned Rodriguez’s Australian success it would have diminished from this somewhat. This omission emphasizes the role of the film-maker in constructing the story he wants to tell. Bendjelloul, like Rodriguez, was a true artist.
As a writer, I find the theme of the unappreciated artist who finally gains recognition to be incredibly appealing. I would think that most writers have the desire to see their work recognized, for someone to say, “you’re pretty good at this.” It isn’t the fame or money; it’s about appreciation. The story of Rodriguez is the quintessential example of this theme. For Bendjelloul, though, himself a remarkable talent, his recognition came at a comparatively young age. By no means do I wish to suggest I have any knowledge about the nature or cause of his depression or suicide. However, in my mind I see these two stories as dichotomies. Rodriguez: talented, unrecognized, happy ending. Bendjelloul: talented, recognized, tragic ending.
I know this is a false dichotomy. I know that it’s my reductionist version of the story. I’ve left things out. There are things I don’t know. But just as Bendjelloul had his version of Rodriguez, this version, my version, seems existentially satisfying in a way that the full truth may never. Truth is always deeper than facts.