Searching for Sugar Man (Bendjelloul, 2012) is a Swedish-British documentary film that details the cultural phenomenon of American musician Sixto Rodriguez in South Africa. The film centres around the endeavours of two South African music fans in the late 1990s who embark on a mission to find out whether the rumoured death of Rodriguez is true, and if not, to discover what truly happened to him. Throughout the film, Rodriguez is portrayed in a very mythical and enigmatic light and this essay will analyse this portrayal in relation to the opening five minutes of the film just after the opening credits.
Searching for Sugar Man employs a mixture of reflexive and poetic modes of documentary storytelling in order to effectively tell the extraordinary tale of Sixto Rodriguez through the perspective of the two main South African subjects – Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom – who make it their personal missions to try and find out what actually happened to the musician who was rumoured to be dead.
The film has a reflexive nature to it in the sense that the narrative of the documentary is orchestrated and framed in such a way to withhold important information from the audience, making the narrative of the film feel very constructed and somewhat artificial even though it is documenting the events of a true story. Such pieces of information that were twisted and omitted from the film include the fact that Sixto Rodriguez has been alive all along and living modestly in Detroit, whereas the film encourages the myth early on that he in fact committed suicide. The film also chooses to ignore other information pertinent to Rodriguez’ story such as, notwithstanding his fame in South Africa, how his music was also relatively popular in Australia as he did two tours there in 1979 and 1981 respectively (Watt, 2013). The film has received criticism for this as it has been seen as “myth-making” by the filmmakers (Cody, 2013) as they chose to ignore documenting his fan following in Australia in favour of his influence in South Africa during the height of its apartheid era. If one researches Rodriguez’ career post the release of his last studio album Coming from Reality (Rodriguez, 1971) it does become evident that Bendjelloul had altered the narrative to tell a more impactful and emotional story.
So how does Bendjelloul’s representation of the story make it more impactful and emotional? The crux to his method of telling this story starts with the sequence I have elected to analyse. The sequence starts off with different shots of inner city Detroit as we hear the first-hand accounts of Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey’s first encounter with Rodriguez in a bar as he plays with his back to the audience. The low-key and eerie way in which the reconstructive sequence is shot, as well as Theodore and Coffey’s voice-over throughout this sequence, propagates the urban myth-like air that the film wishes to portray Rodriguez’s persona. Here we have early on in the film Bendjelloul opting to introduce Rodriguez as an obscure urban folkloric figure that happened to have existed in 1970s Detroit, Michigan. This was likely done to establish the mystery behind the man who would go on to be unceremoniously ignored by American audiences but unexpectedly adored by South Africans.
Shortly after this, we get an animation sequence. The use of animation in this sequence serves as a powerful device in further exacerbating the alleged myth of Rodriguez’ character. Roe opines that “animation and documentary make an odd couple” and that they are a union of opposites that offer a unique perspective in how we view and see the world (2013:1). She goes on to say that animation brings forth ideas of comedy and fantasy whilst documentary is serious and heavily fact-based. It’s interesting to note then that during the opening sequence there is a shot that tracks down a street in Detroit that starts off as an animation and we see an animated figure of Rodriguez walking down it with his guitar strapped on his back. As the camera tracks to the left of the frame the animated reconstruction of that location slowly morphs into live-action photography of the actual physical location. I found this sequence to be fascinating as it serves as an on-screen metaphor for the blur between the facts and myths that surround Rodriguez and how he is presented in the film. The animated part of this sequence representing the myths and the live-action part representing the fact. This is an example of the poetic mode of documentary filmmaking which is when, I think, documentary is in its purest form as a cinematic discipline as it takes inspiration from fiction films to use the full potential of the technical aspects of film to enhance the story that is being portrayed on screen.
However, was Bendjelloul’s decision to introduce Rodriguez’ character as an urban myth that faded into obscurity the right decision to make? The very nature of the documentary field requires filmmakers to be ethical about the subject matter they are portraying. Rosenthal describes the issue of ethics in documentary cinema as the director’s burden to bear as in documentaries “filmmakers use and expose people’s lives” (2007:389); therefore it is the director’s responsibility to be as truthful as possible when constructing the film. Searching for Sugar Man has many elements where the truth is altered in order to fit Bendjelloul’s vision of the narrative. In reality, Rodriguez wasn’t as obscure a figure as the film implies and his musical career did not disappear into nothing the way film would have us believe. Furthermore, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw in his review of the film accused director Bendjelloul as being “guilty of the sin of omission” (Bradshaw, 2012) as he elected not, as aforementioned, to depict Rodriguez’s fan following in Australia. As the film is told through the perspective of Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom and the way South Africans view Rodriguez, it’s not hard to see why Bendjelloul chose to take the film in this direction. He is the director of the film and it ultimately it his job to construct the narrative of his film in a way that is as impactful as possible.
Rabiger describes the medium of documentary as not being reality but a construct (2014:68) and it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to decide which key facts and points to include in the narrative of the documentary. Therefore it can be argued that Bendjelloul’s decision to construct Rodriguez as an enigmatic figure was a decision he made to help tell a better story. When I first watched the documentary I was convinced by the way the subjects of the film described Rodriguez, as well as the conflicting accounts of his alleged suicide, that he was in fact dead and thought that the documentary was telling a tragic story about a man who died without knowing how famous he actually was, or could have been. In fact, that wasn’t the story at all. How the first half of the film is constructed makes us fill mixed emotions of awe and pity about a man so talented to have lived and die in obscurity without any well-deserved recognition. This was a purposeful choice by Bendjelloul to make us feel even more uplifted when it is revealed that Rodriguez is in fact alive and that he visited South Africa to perform sold-out concerns to his loyal fans.
This narrative arc begins strongly with my chosen scene of the film in which Bendjelloul opts to paint the picture of Rodriguez as somewhat of a folkloric drifter whose music was said to be as good, if not better than Bob Dylan’s. The very lack of Rodriguez’ presence in the early part of the film, when the film is really his story, speaks volumes of the air of mythos Bendjelloul wishes to impart on how the audience initially views Rodriguez.
In conclusion, the opening sequence of Searching for Sugar Man after the credits neatly and expertly sets up the trajectory of the narrative throughout the entire film. It establishes Bendjelloul’s interest not on Rodriguez’ story from an objective standpoint but more on the mystery and wonder of his character from the perspective of his millions of South African fans where the truly extraordinary part of Rodriguez’ story is very readily apparent.
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BRADSHAW, P. 2012 Searching for Sugar Man – Review. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/jul/26/searching-for-sugar-man-review [Accessed 13 November 2015]
CODY, B. 2013 ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ – True Story or the Making of a Myth? Available at: http://www.comingsoon.net/movies/news/574376-searching-for-sugar-man-true-story-or-the-making-of-a-myth [Accessed 13 November 2015]
RABIGER, M. 2014 Directing the Documentary. United Kingdom. Focal Press.
RODRIGUEZ, S. 1971 Coming from Reality [CD]. Detroit. Sussex Records.
ROE, A. H. 2013 Animated Documentary. Basingstoke. Palgrave MacMillan.
ROSENTHAL, A. 2007 Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos. 4th edn. United States: Southern Illinois University Press.
Searching for Sugar Man, 2012 [Film] Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. [DVD] Sweden-UK. Studio Canal.
WATT, A. 2013, International man of mystery. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/international-man-of-mystery-20130228-2f6vm.html [Accessed 13 November 2015]