Ideas of Searching in ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

The first mistake a movie-goer can make is to assume that the way the story they came to see is going to be told in the only way it could have been told. This is particularly true of documentaries, because they are about, before all else, information. Documentarians tell stories by organizing information in their own way, and as with any good news-piece, the viewer must honor their natural ability to question the presentation of “facts”, timing, the underlying messages we’ll undeoubtedly perceive (though it’s to each your own), in order to fully appreciate a storyteller’s work. As that ominous, mischievous voice on the Science Channel says: “Question everything.” When we stop questioning and just move with the flow of things, we are effectively at rest…as in dead, and movies should certainly enliven us.Up to a certain point in Malik Bendjelloul’s film, “Searching for Sugar Man”, is the kind of documentary that is sort of difficult to actively question, because 1) it’s absolutely beautiful to behold, and 2) the subjects and material are notably obscure. If we don’t know, how can we question it all- how might we participate? Well, in this case there are big surprises in store for viewers: the structure itself opens us up to questioning the meaning the story has in our own little worlds.

‘Sugar Man’ is about a musician based in Detroit in the 70’s, who got a record deal that went nowhere, and subsequently faded into obscurity. The “end” is only the beginning, of course. It turns out that his lyrics influenced thousands of young South Africans and he is credited with galvanizing the anti-apartheid movement. The kids of the era wondered what ever happened to this man whose music changed their lives, but since the musician was so little known in his country of origin, no one in South Africa knew what happened to him, either. Eventually rumors spread that he met a horrible end: he’d shot himself to death, overdosed on heroin, or set himself ablaze in front of his final audience. The man they called Rodriguez (actually named Sixto Rodriguez or, sometimes, Jesus Rodriguez) was actually living in the suburbs of the crumbling city we/he started in, raising four daughters on his own. He had a degree in philosophy and was known by his fellow construction workers as being quiet, cerebral, and a very devoted to his job and family. His life as a musician had faded, and he spent his days absorbed in different tasks, completely unaware of the impact he had on the revolution against racial inequality in a politically isolated nation across the Atlantic.

 But how? The film is not just about Rodriguez, but the people who searched for him. South African record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman was on a beach on the coast one day when a woman traveling from the United States asked him where she could get a Rodriguez album. He pointed to a record shop across the drive and asked why she wanted to buy it there. After all, she traveled from the US- couldn’t she find it there? She was raised in South Africa and grew up listening to the music, but when she traveled to the states she found out that he was completely unknown and his records were totally impossible to find outside her homeland. This mystery lit a spark in Segerman: he had to find out what happened to Rodriguez. The moment in the film when he finds out -or rather do, because he already has- that Rodriguez is alive, the tone of the film instantly changes. Now the issue is one of getting ahold of the man himself and asking the questions that an entire generation had wondered about for years…a feat achieved. He was found. What more?
It’s like a fairytale. Fans/researchers met this magical musician who changed their lives before he even knew it, and they sat before him, tapping into his brain. In the end (which is, once again, actually a new beginning), Rodriguez’s answers were not as exciting as the wondering. He was content to make art while people were listening, or not. As he said to his first crowd when he got on stage in South Africa ”thank you for keeping me alive!” He smoothly assumed his position as an entertainer again, accepting the invitation to go on tour in his adopted musical homeland, but for years after he returned home, gave the majority of his money away, and continued his work remodeling houses with the same team in Detroit. There was no drama with Rodriguez himself. The gold is seeing his placidity contrast the spastic journey of his music.
‘Sugar Man’ exposes the full story, endorsed by the artist himself, so perhaps there isn’t much to be concerned over- no devious misinforming and nothing damaging. Still, we started with the power of questioning, so what is worth asking when a film is so untricky- seamless, even? I’d say that something unique happens in ‘Sugar Man’, which is that the story of a mystery man expands and retracts to a point where it becomes a symbol of knowing: Rodriguez is known, then he is unknown, then he is found, but why was he ever “lost” in the first place? He is questioned, but has no compelling answers. It’s just what happened. This is special beyond the obvious, because, in my mind, the in and out, push and pull into knowing and not knowing puts into perspective what our use of things like search engines and social media documents have done to our sense of knowing the goings on of the world.
Could this kind of story happen now, with so many of us actively socializing and sharing news, art, likes, and dislikes online? Be shocked: of course it could. Not only are we closed off from much of the world’s happenings by political strongarming, many of the citizens of the world are not yet part of the internet communities we hold to be so valuable. Some of us actually represent what it means to know and connect without actually being able to touch another person in the eye (not just see, to be quite sure you understand). Sixto Rodriguez raised four daughters in a tough urban land without knowing of his own success, and now we know the story- but, also through it, that we must seek out stories and information to make them known. Information itself is a process, not a given.
Whether it was intentional or not, the timing, in an age of “connectedness” is intriguing, as many of the people who see the film will be shocked deep down for no other reason but that they can’t imagine not knowing of a person, place, or action that so many other people know about. It’s called Wikipedia or, on another plane, even Uncyclopedia. It is jolting to be reminded that we could not know something, and that it was once this way on a large scale. Once upon a time (in the 1990’s) people had to go places, get books, and meet other people to find things out. They connected dots in a more physical way. Imagine how exhausting it must have been? Never take for granted your ability to hit ”search” and find something. So, here’s my query: If we cannot find it on Google, and it is almost as if it doesn’t exist until we can, will we be the ones to go out and find that missing “it”, like filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul or Stephen “Sugar” Segerman? Will we limit ourselves to the searchable world of our internet browsers? Documentarians bring to light the questions of our respective eras, and the curious story weavers and investigators that made this film happen reminded me that there is still much to be connected, even in this click-and-post time, we just have to continue to question what looks complete, like any good news-piece.

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