Robert Redford says he likes a challenge. He also says he likes whiskey, which makes me like him even more. But I like the idea of challenging oneself – it’s part of the reason I have found myself on the other side of the world, working out of New York City. But I wanted to know what kind of challenges he’s faced, as president and founder of the Sundance Institute, in keeping the film festival on track, nurturing it to become the respected, buzz-worthy event it is today.
I had the chance to ask him in the festival’s opening press conference. Before he answered, I was sure I saw him give a little smile when I said I was from South Africa. He spoke about the hype that surrounds the festival, and essentially how that has been a blessing but also a peril of the festival. He says he’s concerned with how to make sure the films that are shown at Sundance are carried beyond the hoopla that can come from the fest. He also maintains its been a challenge to keep their heads when others have tried to leverage the festival for their own good.
Oh, and if you’ve ever wanted to know what Mr Redford does when he’s not watching movies, it should come as no surprise to find out he goes skiing.
Even better than seeing Mr Redford in person, was watching Searching for Sugar Man as it opened the World Documentary competition section of the festival. Watching both the movie and taking in people’s reaction to it was a film festival highlight right up there with the time Life, Above All got a standing ovation at Cannes. The film’s director Malik Bendjelloul spoke to the audience about how his journey to make this film came about when he was told the “best story he’d ever heard” from Steven “Sugar” Segerman. Sugar and Craig Bartholemew-Strydom are the two South African fans who made it their mission to find out whatever came of the artist. It’s their journey that cuts through the meaning behind the songs and the myths of suicide to find out who – and where – Rodriguez was.
I first met Sugar years ago when I was starting out in my career as a DJ at UCT Radio in Cape Town. He and Brian Currin ran the SA Rock Digest, which I would often write for. They were total Rodriguez aficionados and had set up a one-stop-resource of information on the musician they believed should have been as big as Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones (indeed in the docccie, Steve Harris from one of the record labels that released Rodriguez’ music in SA says he sold more albums than the Stones at that time). Sugar and Craig joined Malik for a short Q-and-A following the screening. And who should join them up on stage but the man himself – the subject of the documentary – Rodriguez.
When I spoke to Sugar the day before, he told me that Malik knew how to tell the story that he was presented with; how to visually put it on the screen. That is certainly true. There’s a poetry to the way he weaves the story between Cape Town, South Africa and Detroit, USA; the story of a man who was a hero in the former, but nothing more than a bricklayer in the latter. The screening was met with such cheers and rapturous applause that it’s almost certain Rodriguez will now get another lease on his music life. As one man in the audience put it, “this is what Sundance is all about – discovering something you didn’t know existed. South Africa has given us back Rodriguez.” Searching for Sugar Man will most certainly help make that true.