Malek Bendjelloul: Suicide and the Silencing of Despair

It’s striking that seemingly no one picked up that a sense of despair had begun to close in within months before Malik’s suicide death.  How is that possible?                                                                                                                                                             

There are two remarkable stories that book end the premature death of the award-winning film director, Malik Bendjelloul on May 13. One is about Malik, who, at 36 years old, shocked the film world with his horrific suicide and the other is about the Detroit singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriquez, the subject of Malik’a Oscar-winning film “Searching for Sugar Man.” In the early 1970’s, Rodriquez’ two albums failed to take hold in the States, where he remained unknown. Without the artist’s knowledge, his albums were bootlegged and distributed in apartheid South Africa, igniting the imagination of young Afrikaners living in political oppression. Rodriquez became a superstar on another continent simply on the merits of these two albums that contained no information about him. In 1998, after an exhausting search, a group of Afrikaner musicians found him in Detroit and invited him to perform in Cape Town to great acclaim.

The two stories of these two different men mirror each other in contradictory ways. One story is about life and hope, and the other is about death and despair. The stretch of life, the time between birth and death, when weighed in balance with hope, overpowers feelings of despair that inevitably emerge in life. Although Rodriquez’ music career did not develop during his prime years, he remained grounded in hope and took life as it came. Malik’s story is quite different. One wonders if the multi-talented film director, perhaps to escape from an encroaching sense of despair, was unknowingly searching for his own “sugar man” in seeking out and making this film. His creative genius transformed a “great story,” told with exquisite film editing, his own animation, writing his own original music and much more into a “great film.” In a January14 interview, Malik was asked what was next for him, and his last words during that interview were prophetic …”maybe I’ll be a Hollywood casualty.” It’s striking that seemingly no one picked up that a sense of despair had begun to close in within months before his suicide.

Rodriquez, having always possessed a bawdy kind of emotional truth, lived life among the working poor and close to his family. When his 1970’s recordings failed to sell, he viewed his situation as one in which “reality reigns,” meaning he had to go back to his day job as a laborer. Known as someone who might come to work at a demolition site in a tuxedo, he was able to keep a sense of fun through the drudgery of daily life. His music, true to who he is, expresses his soulfulness and emotional authenticity.

During the several years it took to make this remarkable film, Malik’s creative juices kept him going. With little to no funding, he ingeniously found inexpensive, simple solutions to what might have been high production costs. When the hoopla of the award season waned, and the “sugar” that fueled his creative genius ended, one might wonder if Malik’s own demons, perhaps a long-held sense of despair, which often comes with creative genius, took over. For someone like Malik, it may have been traumatizing to be separated from family, friends and his highly prized creative project. Catapulted onto a celebrity circuit awash with expectation most likely left him feeling alienated and isolated from others. Those surrounding him, more than likely, were unable to understand what was happening to the young director. When the wellsprings of creativity run dry, it yields to despair, disconnecting the artist from himself and others.

I find these two stories remarkable because they establish the importance of embodied emotion. Rodriquez’ story demonstrates that the “body never lies”—for bodily emotion inhabits our truth. Malik’s story, and I take poetic license here in my delineation, is about being alone with despair without understanding how human it is to feel deeply. Despair is an inevitable part of life—but what is primary is the context within which such feelings emerge, that needs to be fleshed out and understood. When one dissociates from emotional pain, it often becomes concretized in other forms such as physical pain. When one flees to a disembodied mind, obsessive thinking and perfectionism enslave daily existence.

Suicide is a complex and complicated subject. I don’t assume to know why an artist such as Malik Bendjelloul commits suicide, or, for that matter, why anyone of us might end life in suicide. For some individuals, the overwhelming danger of connecting with one’s emotional truth trumps the will to live. As preposterous as it sounds, death becomes less endangering than bearing the pain when you’re hopelessly alone trying to make sense of it. It takes a welcoming environment, a “relational home” with others who are willing and able to resonate the meanings of such despair to be able to bear it.

There is no such thing as a right or wrong feeling. And there is no such thing as an island unto oneself. We all need others who can resonate what is often above or below the level of worded meanings. The paradox is that Searching for Sugar Man goes far beyond a real-life Cinderella tale. The story is universal as all good stories are because it depicts what it means to be human. We can all identify with the sadness of being unknown and the hope of being found. Malik was almost there … he serendipitously found a very human story, intuitively stoked it to life, only to have his own cut short by misfortune and unbearable despair.





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