When the news came through that Malik Bendjelloul, the director of the wonderful 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man was found dead in his apartment, it was heartbreaking to those who knew him even a little bit. Not only because he was so heartbreakingly young—36. Not only because he was so talented, which he undoubtedly was. Not only because the news was so sudden and unexpected. But because of who he was. I didn’t know Malik well, but I knew him well enough to call him my friend. And from the little time we spent together, that speaks volumes in and of itself.
You might expect that the guy who devoted years of his life to telling the story of a forgotten musical genius would be big-hearted, and you’d be right. But he was just more than big-hearted; he was humble, kind, generous and always willing to lend a helping hand when he could.
I first met Malik at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia Missouri, a fest that lends itself to magical days. I had missed Sugar Man that year at Sundance, but I was anxious to see it at True/False. It was the closing night film, at the historic Missouri Theater, and it blew me away. Afterwards, Malik talked to me about being moved to tears by seeing the film in such a beautiful old theater packed with rapt viewers. Living up to the experience of a Sundance premiere is a tall order, but he seemed every bit as touched by that night.
By that point, I had already gotten to know him over the previous days (and, as is usually the case at True/False, nights). He was part of a merry coterie of extraordinary filmmakers and extraordinary people I bonded with that week—Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated), Bart Layton (The Imposter), Rachel Leah Jones (Gypsy Davy), Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen (Low and Clear), and a couple of others. We drank late into the night, toasting their films and dreaming of new ones. It was a heady time for someone just getting established in the worlds of film and film journalism.
In the months to come, I kept in touch with Malik, mostly in planning our coverage of Sugar Man, one of our favorite docs of the year. We saw each other a couple of times, at festivals and such. When he won the Oscar, I wept. Part of it was seeing Malik in that spotlight. Young filmmaker, first film, amazing story, amazingly well-told, re-establishes the forgotten genius, sets the world on fire, wins Academy Award. It’s the path we’ve all dreamt of. And it thrilled me so to see Malik get there, not only because of what he did, but because of who he was.
In going over some interviews and emails tonight from Malik, I’m struck by how eager he was to offer help to me, as a new filmmaker myself. It’s difficult to imagine how a big award changes the life of its recipient in the year that follows, but among other things it throws your schedule into chaos. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to you, have you on their show, have you speak at their event, pitch you their idea. Malik was incredibly generous to me in offering me feedback and advice on my own documentaries, and even speculating about eventually collaborating. A paragraph in one of our exchanges is looming large in my mind and heart tonight.
“You need to maintain your creative dignity and appreciate your self-confidence,” he said. “You really need to think that what you say in your art is going to be great. And maybe it’s not! Maybe you’re completely wrong! But you have to believe in yourself.”
Malik, you were right about the greatness in your art. As I told you, I know you knew that already, but I’m so glad you got that validation from the world, too. And those of us left behind will strive to create art that lives up to your example. Thanks for what you did, and for who you were. Rest in peace, my friend.