Academy Award winning director Malik Bendjelloul died in Stockholm on Tuesday. He was 36. Bendjelloul, known best for his 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, struggled with depression, according to his brother. The suspected cause of death is suicide.
Following a stint in broadcast journalism, Bendjelloul established a successful career as a filmmaker. Throughout the 2000s, he directed music documentaries featuring celebrated artists like Björk, Elton John, and Rod Stewart. However, Bendjelloul’s most famous work is 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man, which examines the mysteries surrounding American folk musician Sixto Rodriguez. Searching for Sugar Man won an Oscar for Best Documentary and a BAFTA in 2013.
Although fame eluded Sixto Rodriguez in the U.S., his music was a smash hit in South Africa, where his socially conscious lyrics resonated with anti-Apartheid groups. However, South African fans knew little of Rodriguez’s life, and Rodriguez knew nothing of his South African fans. By the early 1990s, South Africans widely assumed Rodriguez to be dead. Searching for Sugar Man follows two Cape Town fans’ investigation into these false death rumors, as well as the Beatlemania-style reception Rodriguez received when he traveled to South Africa for the first time in 1998.
Bendjelloul spent five years filming and even more time editing Searching for Sugar Man. When his main financial backers threatened to abandon the project, Bendjelloul had to improvise, so he stopped using Super 8 film and shot the rest of the documentary using his iPhone’s built-in camera and an app priced at $1.99.
Following the documentary’s 2012 release, Rodriguez’s music experienced a revival in South Africa and throughout the world, and he now enjoys a successful comeback career. In 2013, he performed at several well-known music festivals, including Coachella and the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Currently, there is an ongoing lawsuit in defense of Rodriguez in order to acquire missing royalties from several decades of unrecorded album sales in South Africa.
Searching for Sugar Man producer Simon Chinn paid tribute to Malik Bendjelloul, saying, “As a filmmaker he was an inspiration — someone who, despite his relative inexperience, was driven by a passion and determination to do justice to the great story he had found and to prove to those who had doubted he could do it, of which there were many, wrong.”
Watch the Searching for Sugar Man trailer below: