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The Sunday Conversation: Malik Bendjelloul

Malik Bendjelloul, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Waiting for Sugarman," at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who has been tearing a swath through awards season with his film debut, “Searching for Sugar Man,” is scheduled to attend his first-ever Oscar ceremony Sunday as a nominee for documentary feature.

How has awards season been for you? You’ve won Writers Guild, DGA, BAFTA and other awards. How many have you won?

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Over 30 awards internationally. In awards season we won Writers Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, the American Cinema Editors and BAFTA, the IDA — International Documentary Assn.'s award — and Critics’ Choice and the National Board of Review.

So did you have to buy a tux for this?

I didn’t. I was given a tux by Brooks Brothers. I was very, very grateful for that.

Oscars 2013: Nominee list | Ballot | Trivia

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How has it been to go from relatively obscure documentary maker to celebrated filmmaker?

It’s pretty surreal. The idea that this was my first film — before I only made short stuff for Swedish television. This was supposed to be a seven-minute feature for Swedish television. Then I worked on it for four years — trimming and editing.

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How have people reacted to you at these events?

It’s crazy that you actually see people that come at you that you know of. I’ve been in Stockholm, Sweden. It’s very, very far away from all the things that happen here. So it’s kind of insane. Because it was done on my kitchen table in my apartment in Stockholm without any money at all. It was an extremely primitive production.

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Did you meet anybody you’re a fan of?

Yeah. Ben Affleck told me he really liked the movie. That was pretty cool. He even bought the soundtrack afterward. Bob Dylan saw the movie and liked the movie. He contacted Sony.

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It must be wonderful to be appreciated by your heroes.

Yeah, come on. It’s crazy. It feels like some kind of strange dream. My reality one and a half years ago before the premiere was really so different.

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Let’s go back to the beginning. Talk about a global enterprise — here’s a Swedish filmmaker making a documentary about an American musician who’s the Elvis of South Africa. How did this come about?

It started in 2006. I quit my job, and I went out with a camera and a backpack and my ex-girlfriend. I was looking for stories. This was one of the six or seven stories that I found on that trip.

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OSCARS 2013: Snubs | Reactions | Timeline

How did you find it?

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I bought a $2,000 around-the-world flight ticket to Africa and South America. And in Capetown, first I met Eva, Rodriguez’s daughter who lives in South Africa. Before I went on the trip I sat for a month reading articles from the places I was going to visit, looking for stories.

Eva said, “Don’t you think this could be something more? A documentary?” It took me a while to start thinking that a documentary was a possibility. Then I started and I couldn’t stop.

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So did you have any investor money in this at all?

Yes, first the Swedish Film Institute came on board with a development grant of $150,000 that we spent on travel and animations. When the film was 90% finished, I sent it to them and they said the film was not good at all and they weren’t giving me any money. I said, “Everyone who’s seen it thinks it can win the Oscar.” I actually told them that. Out of desperation, I thought, who could help me. And I’d seen “Man on Wire” and really liked that film. I contacted the producer of that film, a man called Simon Chinn. I gave him a DVD and he said, “I would love to do this.”

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But we still had huge problems finding [enough] funding. So one day, we said, “Are we going to send this film to Sundance?” We were accepted, but by November we still had no money and we thought we were going to withdraw the film. Before we sent that email, we got an email from Sundance saying we are choosing your film as the opening-night film.

At one point you used your iPhone for filming?

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Yes, because I totally ran out of money. I started to shoot the film with a Super 8 camera. It looks vintage. It’s just a couple of hundred dollars to film and develop Super 8, but I didn’t even have that. Then one day I discovered a Super 8 app for my iPhone. It was $1 and I tried it and it looked the same. I did quite a few shoots with that iPhone.

So what intrigued you about Rodriguez’s story?

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I thought it was the best story I’d ever heard in my life — the two fans who are looking for the dead superstar and they find that he’s alive. It was a political story too, that this guy inspired freedom in South Africa. The thing that really grabbed me was the fairy-tale aspect, like Cinderella. This man lives his whole life without knowing that he’s as famous as the Rolling Stones in another country, and he’s actually working as a construction worker.

OSCARS 2013: Full Coverage | Oscar Watch | Buzzmeter

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In the film, you make the case that Rodriguez essentially disappeared after making records in the early ‘70s. But what about reports that he was also a big star in Australia and New Zealand and that he toured Australia in 1979 and 1981?

The way I heard the story was I went to South Africa and I met [Rodriguez fans] Craig [Bartholomew Strydom] and [Stephen] “Sugar” [Segerman], and they told me the story. We tell the story from their perspective, the South African perspective. They had no clue about Australia. South Africa during apartheid was a very isolated country. And a man living in a house without a telephone, Rodriguez wasn’t a normal guy.

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Why do you think Rodriguez didn’t make it here before your film?

One reason was that he was very uncompromising. They asked him to change his name: “Even Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan. You have to do that too.” Rodriguez said no.

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How did you persuade him to do the documentary then?

It took many, many years. We became friends. The third time [we met] I came to Detroit in the winter, and that was the first time I did an interview. That’s why he did it — he saw us out filming in minus-20 Celsius. That was very short. Then I came back to Detroit every year for four years and I shot another 15-minute interview. In the end that was enough.

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What has the film done for your career?

I don’t know yet. I have been writing a script, which is finished. It’s not a documentary, it’s fiction. I have a few documentary ideas too. I’m also thinking of going out and doing the same thing I did with this story — going out backpacking and looking for stories the same way. It’s a very fun way to work, to explore and discover and hopefully find something.

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