‘Searching for Sugar Man’ filmmaker committed suicide, family confirms
Relatives express shock at death of Malik Bendjelloul, the talented but struggling filmmaker whose life's work took home the Oscar
Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish director of the acclaimed Searching for Sugar Man documentary, was widely known for his enthusiasm, kindness and high spirits, so the news that he had taken his own life shocked colleagues around the world.
His elder brother, Johar Bendjelloul, has confirmed that 36-year-old Malik killed himself on Tuesday. He told the daily Aftonbladet that his brother had struggled with depression for a short period.
“Life is not always simple,” Johar Bendjelloul was quoted as saying, adding that receiving the message that his brother had killed himself was the worst thing he had ever experienced.
“I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t know,” he said.
Police would not comment on the cause of death but said they suspected no foul play.
Filmmaker Bendjelloul rose to international fame last year when his debut feature film, Searching for Sugar Man, won an Oscar for best documentary. The film tells the story of Detroit-based singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who had flopped in the United States but became a superstar in apartheid-era South Africa without even knowing about it.
The film also won several other prizes, including a British BAFTA for best documentary and the Swedish Guldbagge award.
“He made a great film and will be missed,” US documentary film maker Michael Moore wrote on Twitter.
British film producer Simon Chinn, who produced “Searching for Sugar Man,” said he was shocked and deeply saddened by the news of his friend’s passing.
“It seems so unbelievable,” Chinn said. “He had everything to live for.”
Chinn said he saw Bendjelloul only two weeks ago in London. “He was so full of life, hope and optimism and happiness, and looking forward to the future and future collabourations,” he said. “The idea that he is no longer is just too hard to process.”
The soft-spoken Bendjelloul worked as a reporter for Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT before resigning to backpack around the world. He got the idea for “Searching for Sugar Man during one of his trips, but it would take him more than four years to complete the film.
He reached out to Chinn when the film was 90 per cent finished but when his main sponsor had withdrawn support, saying the film was lousy.
At this stage he had already used up all his savings and borrowed money from friends, so he stopped working on the movie and took other jobs to make ends meet. In the end, he completed the film by shooting the final parts with his smartphone and making his own animations.
“He just kind of came in with his bounce of enthusiasm and charm and smiling eyes and I was completely won over by him,” Chinn recalled yesterday.
“He had found this amazing story and was completely determined to do it justice,” he said. “The fact that no one else believed in it didn’t seem to deter him, he just kind of pursued it with incredible passion and tenacity that I hadn’t really ever seen before in a filmmaker.”
SVT’s culture chief Eva Beckman said Bendjelloul’s death was incomprehensible and praised his strong storytelling skills and his willingness to experiment with new formats. “He was a fantastic storyteller,” she said.
In the Sugar Man film, Bendjelloul detailed how Rodriguez had developed a cult following among white liberals in South Africa who were inspired by his songs protesting the Vietnam war, racial inequality, the abuse of women and social mores.
They came to believe that Rodriguez had died a bitter death, but it was not until after the end of apartheid and the advent of the internet that they realised he was alive. The film followed the quest of Cape Town record store owner Stephen Segerman and journalist Carl Bartholomew-Strydom as they set out to determine Rodriguez’s fate.
They found him living in obscurity and working on construction sites in Detroit, and brought him to South Africa for a triumphant concert tour.
Segerman said yesterday that it was difficult to accept the death of Bendjelloul, who he said was a “really, really lovely, charming human being” who appeared happy.
“He was like Tintin,” Segerman said, comparing the filmmaker to the globe-trotting character from Herge’s comic books.
He praised Bendjelloul’s ability to persuade people, including the reclusive Rodriguez, to talk to him for his documentary.
The film’s Oscar win led to a career rebirth for Rodriguez, who has been touring major venues in the US and introducing American audiences to the songs he wrote four decades ago.
Rodriguez told Billboard magazine on Tuesday night that the death was “a shock”.
“I just found out about it a couple of hours ago. He was a very talented man and hard-working artist – he proved it by hitting an Academy Award his first time out. My deepest condolences to his family. Rest in peace.”
Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.
Bendjelloul was born in 1977 to Swedish translator Veronica Schildt Bendjelloul and doctor Hacene Bendjelloul and acted in the Swedish TV series Ebba and Didrik as a child during the 1990s. He studied journalism and media production at the Linnaeus University of Kalmar in southern Sweden before joining SVT.