In 2006, a slight, handsome man named Malik Bendjelloul was restless. A reporter for the Swedish public broadcaster SVT, he was tired of his job and wanted a change. So he packed a few things and traveled to Africa — a decision that would change his life and the life of an unsung American musician.
But Bendjelloul’s life ended Tuesday night. The Swedish 36-year-old director of the Oscar-winning documentary “Searing For Sugar Man” died in the Stockholm area. The cause of death was not known early Wednesday.
“He could spend days and nights to make a brief scene in any story,” friend Per Sinding-Larsen wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. His Oscar-winning movie “may be about a singer from Detroit, but the way it is made — total dedication, curiosity, inventiveness — reflects the author himself.”
Raised in Sweden, Bendjelloul got his first experiences on camera acting in the Swedish TV series “Ebba och Didrik” as a boy in the 1990s. Soon, however, he wanted to be on the other end of the lens and studied journalism and media production. From there, he took a job as a journalist at SVT.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Bendjelloul left his position for Africa in search of a greater story. He eventually arrived at Cape Town in South Africa, where he met a record store owner who was a big time fan of an American musician most Americans had scarcely heard of: Sixto Rodriguez.
Rodriguez had produced a record called “Cold Fact” in 1970 that was a bust stateside, but a hit in South Africa. But the musician didn’t know it, so he gave up music and started working construction.
But some in South Africa — like the record store owner who had created a Web site called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” — were looking for him. In apartheid South Africa, Rodriguez’s music, steeped in anger over the Vietnam War and racial inequality, had fomented a cult following in the nation.
The quest to find Rodriguez and tell his story led to “Searching For Sugar Man,” which unfurled more like a detective story than a documentary. “This was the greatest, the most amazing, true story I’d ever heard, an almost archetypal fairy tale,” Bendjelloul told the New York Times in 2012. “It’s a perfect story. It has the human element, the music aspect, a resurrection and a detective story.”
Virtually without funding or resources, Bendjelloul’s documentary on Rodriguez became a passion project. “He was an incredibly talented storyteller,” Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas said. “He had the strength of a marathon runner; to work on his film for so many years and sometimes without money, then you have a goal.”
When he won the 2013 Oscar for best documentary, he exclaimed “Oh, boy!” and thanked “one of the best singers ever, Rodriguez.”
But Rodriguez wasn’t even in attendance. He had declined to attend the ceremony, thinking it would take attention away from Bendjelloul. In fact, he was sleeping. “I was tired,” Rodriguez told Rolling Stone. “I was asleep when it won, but my daughter Sandra called to tell me. I don’t have TV service anyway.”
According to the Guardian, Bendjelloul is survived by his parents and a brother. As of Wednesday morning, there weren’t any confirmed funeral arrangements.