It was reported in numerous world and US news publications this morning, Oscar Winning documentarian Malik Bendjelloul has passed away at age 36. The Swedish Journalist and Filmmaker’s cause of death is reportedly suicide. According to MSN, his brother reported Bendjelloul had recently been battling depression.
Born in Sweden in 1977, Bendjelloul first made his mark in the entertainment world as a child actor in his native country. After studying Journalism and Media in college, he took a job at Swedish broadcast station SVT. His love of music and film soon lead him to directing “Rockumentaries” on musicians like Elton John and Bjork.
During his world travels in the late 1990’s, South African music enthusiasts Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Brian Currin began their efforts to find out more about their favorite musician, the mysteriously forgotten American Folk Artist Sixto Rodriguez. Both were seeking answers to the musician’s long-lost recordings and rumored death. In 2006, Benjelloul met the two and saw the intrigue in their story. This chance encounter sparked his five-year production effort to create the documentary “Searching For Sugarman”. Cut off from much of the world due to South Africa’s apartheid restrictions, Segerman and Currin were unaware Rodriguez was still alive and playing venues in Australia and Great Britain, despite his obscurity in America. As apartheid was lifted and the Internet became a key tool to their search, Benjelloul filmed the “discovery” of The Sugarman, and his glorious, myth-making reemergence in South Africa, where his subversive music had become legendary in his absence.
With a flair and passion for story-telling, Benjelloul created a moving movie that not only granted a once-forgotten Artist the state-side fame he deserved. It also revealed a grotesquely parasitic aspect of the music industry, the effects of government-imposed censorship, and revealed the charming character of Rodriguez. Focusing on such an obscure person, Benjelloul’s backers eventually quit funding his project, leaving the filmmaker with no means to continue filming in the costly 8mm film format. Not one to give up, Benjelloul finished pieces of his documentary using an iPhone app called “8mm Vintage”.
Having created a revelatory film full of emotion and intrigue, Malik Bendjelloul’s finished work won the hearts of audiences and film juries alike. Released in January 2012, “Searching For Sugarman” won dozens of awards and accolades, including BAFTA and Academy Award Oscars for Best Feature-length documentary. Sixto Rodriguez humbly declined to attend the American Academy Award ceremony, not wanting to overshadow Bendjelloul’s work. Since the film, Rodriguez’s career has blossomed in the US, as well as around the world.
Last year, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bendjelloul reflected on the surprise success of “Searching For Sugarman”. Asked how he would follow up on its success, he (now) eerily noted, “Either I go traveling again looking for a story the same way I found this, or I'll go with the best Hollywood offer. Or I will become a Hollywood casualty." It seems to be the demon that strikes so many of Hollywood’s brightest, quiet despair and depression became Bendjelloul final battle. The young genius leaves behind a small but significant work of passionate film-based storytelling.