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Searching for Answers

The news of Malik Bendjelloul’s death came right at the start of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I woke up, ready to attend the first screening of the fest, when I received an email that said the director had died in Stockholm, his home country. But there was no confirmation of the cause of death. He was 36 years old. An Oscar winner. A filmmaker with so much more to do. It was a shock that made me gasp out loud.

As the day continued, I bumped into a Swedish colleague, who works for a radio station, as we were both waiting for the festival’s opening press conference. While talking, he received a text that said Malik had jumped in front of a train. We both moved out of the press line, wordless, to a corner and hugged each other for a few moments.  

My friend had known Malik much better than I had. I met him at a film festival – the first film festival, where Searching for Sugar Man had screened, Sundance. It was my first time there, and my long-time friend Sugar, who is one of the two South African fans in Malik’s documentary who look for Rodriguez, had emailed me to say the film would be going there. He was too, and he introduced me to Malik on the night of the documentary’s premiere. I remember Sugar, who had worked on setting up a website for all things Rodriguez-related, together with Brian Currin, telling me that many people had tried to tell the forgotten singer’s story before, but only Malik was the one who really got it. 

A day later, I interviewed Malik – and was taken aback by two things. One, his animated demeanour – he had a zest for life that spilled out in his words. And two, that he didn’t have the money to do the music (over and above the Rodriguez songs used) for the soundtrack, or for the graphics he had in mind for the film, so he did them himself. I was so impressed at his DIY attitude. I had used that excuse many times in my own life – ‘I don’t have the money to do this or that,’ but here was a man who just did it. He sent that version of the film, with what he thought was temporary music and hand-drawn graphics as placeholders, to give Sundance an idea of what he was trying to do – and would finish if the film was accepted. 

As we know, it turned out the Sundance people liked it just the way it was. His determination was – to use a word that has been overused so many times – inspiring. Truly. Searching for Sugar Man kept gaining traction at the other film festivals where it showed. More than just about South Africa, and a musician whose own home country ignored him, it was a story of faith, and persevering, and letting go, and dignity and solid family values. It was story-telling at its best. 

The questions around Malik’s death remain bewildering. This week The Hollywood Reporter has an excellent piece that attempts to trace what went wrong for Malik. The writer, Scott Johnson, went to Sweden to try answer the unanswerable question of what would have caused a talented person with such enthusiasm, to commit suicide; how he could go from winning an Oscar one year, to killing himself the next. 

Malik with producer Simon Chinn after winning the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2013.
Malik with producer Simon Chinn after winning the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2013.

Johnson spoke to Malik’s friends and colleagues, probing his background, his childhood and family life, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Malik’s older brother, Johar, says Malik had been depressed in the time before his death, telling Johnson that he had been by his brother’s side “almost constantly” in the day’s before he died. “I know he had been depressed for a short period, and depression is something you can die from,” Johar told THR. “But the question of why, no one can answer; it will ache in my chest the rest of my life.”

The piece suggests the depression was either lying there all this time, masked by a project that kept Malik occupied for 5 years, or it was brought on by the fear of following up with the next one. A psychologist THR spoke to says fame can be experienced like a car crash, in terms of the impact it can have. Malik had been in New York working on a script for a feature film about a South African conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, who rescued abandoned animals from a Baghdad zoo in 2003, but according to the THR story, he had been feeling isolated and alone, and unable to make progress on it. The story covers the insecurities he expressed to those close to him – insecurities many creative people have, but they seem to have got the better of him. 

The only person we don’t hear from in the piece is Rodriguez himself. Yet it almost doesn’t matter. It wasn’t only the singer’s life Malik changed in making the documentary. Yes, Rodriquez now plays to sold-out shows across the world, but how many other filmmakers has Malik inspired – and not just filmmakers, but people like me, who were inspired in a small but significant way?

At the end of a video THR’s Scott Feinberg did with Malik in the run-up to the Oscars, the filmmaker answers a question about what’s next by joking that he could end up becoming “a Hollywood casualty,” suggesting he could let his hair grow long and disappear off the radar. In his death, the long hair may no longer be possible, but my hope is that he is not  forgotten.  



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