Dissecting Documentaries ‘Searching for Sugar Man’
Critical Film Studies
Written by Amanda Tan - 11. Apr. 18
“The photographic realism of the documentary can easily conceal the extent which it often actively constructs a particular view of the world. This view is determined, among other things, by the filmmaker’s own preconceptions, by the perspective from which the events are witnessed, and by the structuring principles according to which the material is edited.” As such, documentaries are just as carefully structured and constructed as fiction films. Critically discuss this with reference to Searching For Sugar Man.
To adequately address the assumption that documentaries are ‘just as carefully structured and constructed as fiction films’ due to the nature of how they are created, it is crucial to first establish a concrete distinction between both forms of film, as well as the way each form is being constructed. The definition of a documentary and what differentiates it from a fiction film remains fraught with complexities. To be in complete agreement with the made statement would imply a tacit acknowledgement to the oversimplified dichotomy between a documentary and a fiction film (Williams 20) - a representation of reality as opposed to a fabricated narrative. As put forth by the preface of the question, the orchestration that goes behind a documentary pressures one into doubting the actuality and ‘truth’ being presented, thus blurring the lines between the determinants of fact and fiction. The question further makes an assumption about the structure and construct of documentaries - that because of its more spontaneous nature, the process is not as ‘careful’ as one of a fiction film, where in contrast, is more concretely planned during pre-production. It is my contention that documentary films are indeed ‘carefully structured and constructed’ because of their nature as stated in the preface, but that it would be conflicting to compare this process with how ‘carefully structured and constructed’ a fiction film is, since the bases of comparison for documentaries and fiction films differ so greatly from each other. With the aid of Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugarman, this essay aims to break away from the conventional ways of understanding documentaries and fiction films, dissect the reasons for these conventional train of thoughts, and to define what it means to be ‘carefully structured and constructed’ respective to both forms of film.
A documentary can be defined, generally, as a work or text which implicitly claims to truthfully represent the world, whether it is to accurately represent events or issues or to assert that the subjects of the work are ‘real people’ (Beattie 10). The traditional traits of a documentary include the filming of real subjects in their natural environments, conducting interviews with the subjects themselves or people close to the subjects, and depending on the type of documentary, voice-over narrations accompanying the visual representations. To supplement these, archival material is sometimes used to ironically, substantiate a film’s reliability and to add to the believability (Vaughan 184) of the point of view of a particular issue. In Searching for Sugarman, the cultural phenomenon of American musician Sixto Rodriguez in South Africa is explored through the perspective of two fans from Cape Town, record store owner Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom, as they made it their mission to uncover the truth behind the rumoured death of the obscure musician. The film’s director Malik Bendjelloul learnt about Segerman’s involvement in the hunt for Rodriguez through a news article. Fascinated by the piece, he contacted Segerman and flew to Cape Town for their first meeting (Davis). After securing financing for a month long research trip, Bendjelloul travelled to Cape Town and met with the relevant players there, whom he spoke to and conducted interviews with (Feinberg). What constitutes the construct of a documentary includes the pre-production process of one which entails firstly, thorough research regarding the subject matter, getting in touch with the target subjects, and also one of the more challenging hurdles, gaining enough of their trust such that the subjects are comfortable with being followed around and perpetually filmed. This differs from how a fiction film is being planned out before production begins where typically, a screenplay is being written with a structured narrative and fully established characters, actors are hired to play these characters, locations are pre-determined to best emulate the world these characters are meant to be in and shot lists are planned in accordance to what would serve the story. There is an underlying assumption in the made statement of the question that less is put into the preparation process for a documentary as compared to a fiction film, and that it is largely the determinants stated in the preface that shape a documentary into being ‘carefully structured.’ It is my contention that the very act of speaking to the pertinent parties involved to gain a better understanding of an issue and their lives, the empathy required to be discerning and sensitive towards a diversity of people and situations, and the ability to be able to adapt to fluctuating circumstances before and during the filming process of a documentary serve as a starting point as to how a documentary would turn out, thus these elements being utterly crucial in what constitutes a carefully constructed film. This renders the underlying assumption which undermines the pre-production processes of documentaries invalid. To say that documentaries are as carefully constructed as fiction films would imply there being similarity in the processes, which is hardly the case as reflected above. In light of this however, the degree to which documentaries are carefully constructed is definitely on par with the extent to which fiction films are in their individual ways.
The photographic realism of documentaries is hard to deny since it inevitably exists when filmmakers spend a substantial portion of their time on locations with their target subjects - pursuing a story and acquiring stream after stream to piece into a film. It is also incontestable that along with the filmmaker’s preconceptions, eye witness accounts, and how the material is being edited, this sense of realism potentially skews the end product of a documentary to a substantial degree. One reason why it might be so difficult to define a documentary could be the amount of control a director has to manipulate the content acquired into something that does not accurately portray reality, rather, to fulfil his or her personal agenda. If a documentary is merely a construct of reality, then on what basis could it be differentiated from a fiction film? The words and images used to describe Rodriguez in Searching for Sugarman were very deliberately selected to introduce him as an enigmatic figure who almost seemed to be worshipped by the people who spoke about him. The film begins with a sequence of shots of a dimly lit, foggy Detroit as we are offered first-hand accounts of encounters with Rodriguez - this is accompanied by him playing at a bar, back-facing the audience on screen. Bendjelloul has set Rodriguez up from the beginning as an obscure and mysterious being, which was likely done to contribute to the suspenseful tone of the film. Searching for Sugarman has many elements in which the truth was bent to suit Bendjelloul’s vision instead of adhering to the true sequence of events. There was a clear intention to hold back crucial pieces of information, such as the misleading us to believe that Rodriguez committed suicide at the beginning even though he was alive all along. His popularity in Australia in the early 1980s was also omitted as it would not have served the narrative and emotion Bendjelloul wanted to instill in the audience. To strengthen the effect of conveying Rodriguez’s influence during the period of Apartheid (a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed between 1948 and 1994) in South Africa, his significance in Australia as a musician was also ignored completely and undocumented in Bendjelloul’s film. A director’s intervention in documentary films is a major factor in the construction of meaning (Kealhofer 36). Searching for Sugarman was meticulously thought out and it conveniently echoes a narrative structure: 1. Equilibrium (People who love Rodriguez’s music) 2. Problem (Rodriguez’s death, mystery) 3. Solving the problem (Uncovering the truth about Rodriguez, his success) 4. Resolution (Rodriguez is found and the film ends on a jovial note). With such a deliberate attempt by Bendjelloul to craft a compelling narrative as opposed to more objectively documenting the story of Rodriguez, is the film then befitting as a documentary, or does it veer more towards something of fiction?
Paradoxically, the governing traits of a documentary could also be what leads to the conundrum of defining one. The traits that seem to define a documentary no matter how much an edit is influenced or no matter how skewed a film is towards a particular viewpoint, are the realities that the lives of real people are being filmed at real locations, and that there is no script written beforehand that fixates a plot or storyline. Just because a film possesses these traits, is it really depicting real life? In other words, are these factors alone enough to deem a film a documentary? Perhaps one reason why documentaries are so complex and so prone to seeming manipulative is the very fact that the lives of real people are involved, and how every decision a filmmaker makes every step of the way would carry a significance as compared to if it were fiction, where less weight would be put on how the characters are reflected since it would not directly impact the lives of individuals. Truth claims reflect a tacit contractual agreement or bond of trust between documentary producers (whether an individual filmmaker or broadcasting institution) and an audience that the representation is based on the actual socio-historical world, not a fictional world imaginatively conceived (Beattie 11). Consequently, the issue of ethics in documentary films is the director’s weight to bear as “filmmakers use and expose the lives of people” (Rosenthal 389). With regards to Searching for Sugarman, Bendjelloul went through the trouble of going through Rogriduez’s daughters whilst attempting to contact him and was faced with the challenge of getting to know and eventually interviewing someone as private as he was (Feinberg). The overall process of constructing and structuring a documentary requires the ability to balance the director’s vision of the film, maintain the trust in a director-subject relationship, keep in mind the subject’s expectation of what the film becomes, manage audience expectations, and think of how the documentary can be structured in a compelling way at the same time, all whilst simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the people and issues involved in the film. With the ton of demanding personal as well as societal expectations a documentary filmmaker has to attempt to fulfil, falling short in certain aspects is inevitable. Perhaps also, this idealistic, perfect version of what a documentary needs to be, circles us in a trap, which partially answers why even something as fundamental as properly defining what it is remains a quandary.
The aforementioned considerations that go with making documentary films are not factors that one has to fervently and actively think about when making a fiction film. The structure of a fiction film is fixed, which would present its own set of concerns that vary greatly from those of a documentary. Thus, further substantiating that the line of argument presented, especially when put in context with the preface as a set of conditions, is weaved with underlying assumptions that make it difficult to give a concrete answer, which I have contended against earlier in the essay.
To conclude, documentaries are representations of reality that make use of real life as raw material, constructed by artists and technicians who make a range of decisions about what version of the story to tell to whom, and for what purpose. Consequently, while documentaries do keep records of moments in the lives of actual people, this does not diminish the fact that they are constructed, to a certain degree, through processes of production, mise-en-scene, and through editing (Kealhofer, 34). In an attempt to break down the various definitions and what it means to be ‘carefully structured and constructed’ for both the documentary and fiction film, I hope to have put forth the incongruence in the line of argument beneath the made statement. All fiction films contain elements of documentary, and no documentary is devoid of fiction, yet it is only human inclination for us to compartmentalize what is hard to process, in order for it to be streamlined into something easier to understand.
Beattie, K. Documentary Screens: Nonfiction Film and Television. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2004.
Davis, R. Malik Bendjelloul: Death of a filmmaker who told an extraordinary South African tale. Daily Maverick, 2014, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-05-16-malik-bendjelloul-death-of-a-filmmaker-who-told-an-extraordinary-south-african-tale/#.U3RpwPmSwhQ
Eitzen, D. “When Is a Documentary?: Documentary as a Mode of Reception.” Cinema Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1, 1995, pp. 81-102. Published by: University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/12... Accessed: 13/07/2010 12:39
Feinberg, S. ‘Sugar Man’ Director on His Journey from Swedish TV to Oscars (Video). Hollywood Reporter, 2013, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/searching-sugarman-malik-bendjelloul-interview-422328
Kealhofer, L. Muslim Women in French Cinema: Voices of Maghrebi Migrants in France. Liverpool University Press, 2015.
Rosenthal, A. Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos. United States: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.
Vaughan, D. For Documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Williams, L. “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 1993, pp. 9-21. Published by: University of California Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/12... . Accessed: 28/11/2011 16:30.