Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter published a comprehensive piece that takes a look at the final days of "Searching for Sugar Man" director Malik Bendjelloul. Bendjelloul took his life in early May, a little more than a year after he won an Oscar for his documentary about American musician Sixto Rodriguez. THR (and arguably most glossy publications) don't usually lead in with cover stories about documentary filmmakers, but the multi-talented director's tragic death has warranted such a profile.
The article includes a brief biography, snippets of conversations with some of Bendjelloul's closest friends and colleagues and, perhaps most unfortunately, a glimpse at the decline of the director's mental health. In honor of his life and THR's thorough article, Indiewire has decided to put together a piece that highlights some things you probably didn't know about the filmmaker.
For one, it's essential to understand that Bendjelloul, according to his family and friends, appeared the least likely of people to take his own life. The article emphasizes the way in which his artistic hunger, drive and quirks (many of which may now seem slightly telling of something dark) made him such an energetic and content presence.
From the get go, Scott Johnson's article establishes Bendjelloul as a unique and brilliant presence, all of which was first apparent while he attended University. "I couldn't figure out how he [did it]," TV producer and friend Per Sinding Larsen, who was visiting the school and came across Bendjelloul's works, said. "He didn't have the money or the means to do the things he was doing already at the time."
What is perhaps most fascinating about his genius, and with all geniuses, is that it was accompanied by a series of quirks that most people around him had deemed harmless and part of the director's diligence. In addition to keeping himself on a 1,000-day deadline for "Searching for Sugar Man," running a complete lap around his apartment each day, and dedicating four hours starting at 8 AM every morning, Bendjelloul also had a series of unusual food habits. For example, upon finding out that his favorite brand of tomato sauce was discontinued, he purchased all the remaining stock. He also would force himself to eat the same breakfast for six month intervals, asserting that this routine would ultimately lead to a more enjoyable transition to other foods. Yes, these behaviors may seem bizarre and (in retrospect) problematic, but the THR article makes them out to be endearing qualities that accompanied the otherwise very with-it director.
As first described by Larsen in the article, some of the more fascinating aspects we learned about Bendjelloul's life have much to do with the clear signs of his talent that were apparent before the idea of "Searching For Sugar Man" was even conceived. Bendjelloul was a standout while working at Kobra, a Swedish news station, and was known for providing pitch after pitch, his passions for projects involving Paul McCartney and Michel Gondry and a movie short that would play at the beginning of Kobra episodes. His professionalism and talent can also be seen in his choice of favorite movie, Lars von Trier's "The Five Obstructions," where one director challenges another in an attempt to create "the perfect human" five times with a different obstruction each time. Paralleling von Trier's commitment to perfection in his documentary, Bendjelloul was relentless with his own work. In short, the article makes clear that Bendjelloul's passion and energy are what distinguished him and, at the same time, make his death all the more unreal.
Still, despite his talent and energy, which drove him through the production of "Searching for Sugar Man," the article is careful to point out Bendjelloul's subsequent decline. The magazine interviewed a famed psychologist who specializes in celebrity culture and draws a hypothesis about the way a sudden shift into the spotlight could be equatable, in terms of shock, to a car crash. Bendjelloul, who had relocated to New York from Sweden was working on a script for a film about a South African conservationist who goes to Baghdad to rescue zoo animals. Around this time, however, he expressed anxiety over the project, was suffering from insomnia and had lost touch with many of his colleagues in Sweden. THR states that for someone as driven as Bendjelloul, who had put everything into "Searching for Sugar Man," the fear of losing his creativity was at the forefront. This is something the director had also admitted to those closest to him.
Moreover, while THR makes clear that Bendjelloul's friends were in a state of disbelief upon learning about the director's suicide, the article also emphasizes how many of the director's greatest strengths could have also been some of his greatest vices.