The producer of Best Documentary Oscar winners Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man shares his memories of pal Malik Bendjelloul, the Sugar Man director who reportedly took his own life at the age of 36.
I received an email late Tuesday night from one of the publicists who worked on the awards campaign for Searching for Sugar Man, and the subject line was shocking in itself—and completely unbelievable. It referred to news of Malik’s death, and the body of the email mentioned a Swedish news report.
That was it.
My first thoughts were that there must have been some terrible accident, because I’d had breakfast with him two weeks before in London, and seen him in New York two weeks before that, and he seemed so full of life. Notwithstanding the usual questions that he had, and struggles or concerns about what you do after you’ve scaled the mountain with a film like Sugar Man, he seemed in good spirits. For the past year, he’d been living in New York with his girlfriend, who he'd met during awards season. As far as I’m aware, they were very happy and he thought the world of her. She was there with him at the Academy Awards.
Every time I visited New York we’d tend to meet up. As it always was with Malik, it was a huge pleasure to see him that day—just seeing his smiling face and spending time with him. He’s a man of such gentle and generous spirit. I always saw him as something of an innocent, and that made him a very special person to spend time with.
He’d been writing a screenplay for a fictional project for the better part of a year in his typically focused and committed way; he’d become convinced that the way in which he’d made Sugar Man was the process he should pursue again—one in which he completely immersed himself in the project to the exclusion of everything else.
Malik described the project to me in great detail over dinner one evening. It was based on Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist who was in charge of rescuing all the animals that had escaped from The Baghdad Zoo at the start of the Iraq War. Malik had shot some material with Anthony for a possible documentary a while before, but he’d since died, and he felt there wasn’t quite enough there to base a doc on, so he embarked on a fiction film loosely based on that premise. It was a very ambitious project.
I think Malik was coming to the realization that the process of putting together and setting up a fiction film is a very different one, and he was coming around to the idea that I’d suggested—that he might consider diving into a documentary project and get back in the saddle, it didn’t necessarily need to be another Sugar Man. We discussed a bunch of ideas we found interesting with the hopes of pursuing them.
Sugar Man’s Oscar win had given him lots of opportunities, and various organizations were giving him grant money in Sweden, and beyond. Although he hadn’t made any money during the making of the film, he more than made up for that in the aftermath given the film’s success, so he wasn’t on the breadline at all. He was comfortable. To me, Malik did not seem like a man who was depressed, desperate, or any of those things. He did not seem like a man who was ready to take his own life—far from it.
The truth about Malik is he worked on Sugar Man for five years. In a way, I think it had been a bit of a love affair; he’d fallen hard for this story, and had thrown himself into trying to make the best possible film with the material, and do this great story he’d found justice. He toiled without money to do that, but for him it had been an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding experience.
I came onboard for the last year of that journey. He was desperate to find a collaborator because he was working on his own, and was in need of money and someone he felt he could rely on.
In March 2011 I received an email from someone I’d never heard of with an odd-sounding name. It was very short and basically said, “I have this amazing story and I’m passing through London on my way back to Stockholm from LA… Will you meet with me?” There was something about the story he presented in a couple of sentences that sounded intriguing—a man who didn’t know he was famous, and he’d attached an article about Rodriguez. I agreed, and we met two days later. I remember him bouncing into my office with his twinkly, puppyish charm and infectious enthusiasm for the story. He was totally convinced that it was the best story ever. He told me later that he’d called my office a few days earlier asking for a few minutes of my time because he had “a story that was better than Man on Wire.” I never got that message, but here he was.
The project was promising, but there were some historic issues in terms of the way it had been set up that needed sorting out. He gave me a rough cut and it gave me a goose bump moment. I thought it was wonderful, and thought, “Why hadn’t everyone thought it was wonderful?” He’d brought it back to the financiers who’d given him some initial ‘seed’ money and they thought it was lousy, and should have been a 30-minute short at best, which I still find shocking to this day.
Getting him to finish the project was quite challenging. We almost had to drag him away from the cutting room, and the end of that process was bittersweet. Even though Sugar Man had such success, the absence of it left a bit of a hole in him.
On Oscar night, I took great pleasure in being able to experience everything through Malik’s eyes. He’d been on the awards circuit quite a lot, and had camped out at the Beverly Wilshire—Sony’s hotel in L.A., living in a suite and bouncing back-and-forth between Hollywood parties hobnobbing with A-list directors. He charmed the pants off everyone. During awards night, he seemed to know everyone in Hollywood, and everyone seemed to love him. And how could they not? He was a very lovable guy. And then winning, I had this very vivid memory of walking down this long corridor after you win to the various press conferences, and it was this moment of peace. Malik looked dazed, but happy. The thing about Malik is he seemed quite comfortable with it, to take it all in his stride.
The news of his death was a huge shock, and something I’m still struggling to reconcile with the person I remember. I consider Malik to be a close friend. He had an extremely promising career ahead of him, and the fact that it’s been cut short is a tragedy, but he does leave this amazing legacy of Searching For Sugar Man, which I think is, in a way, the purest expression of Malik’s personality. It’s full of love, passion, hope, and life. That is how he should be remembered, and that is how I will remember him.
As told to Marlow Stern.