[26 June 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring,
Divorce the only answer, smoking causes cancer.
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune,
And that’s a concrete cold fact.
—Rodriguez, “This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst”
The club was in a bad part of Detroit, remembers Dennis Coffey. And the night was creepy too, you could see the mist in the air, “coming in like out of a Sherlock Holmes movie.” Still, he and his partner Mike Theodore had heard this kid was good, and so they went to see Sixto Rodriguez sing. The mystery thickens as the story goes on: “He had a strange voice,” remembers Theodore. “You see this guy with his back to you. It was an ethereal scene, it forced you to listen to the lyrics, because you couldn’t see his face.”
So begins Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that takes up its title rather literally. As Coffey and Theodore look back on the album they co-produced for Sussex Records, 1970’s Cold Fact, neither man has much to say about the “inner city poet” Rodriguez, as their shoulda-been star was called, beyond noting the anomaly he presented. A Latino artist whose work was compared by listeners to Bob Dylan’s, he resisted categorization. “He was this wandering spirit around the city,” bartender Dan DiMaggio chimes in. “I heard he did a little flooring and construction work.”
To underline the mystery, the film—which screened recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Silverdocs—provides old shadowy snapshots and a stylized, animated Rodriguez walking against the urban wind. Theodore muses that Detroit was the artist’s “natural habitat,” and he told stories about street, about drugs and violence and loss. Coffey and Theodore expected great things for Cold Fact, but, well, they suggest now, maybe the circumstances weren’t “right,” maybe he was “too political.” The record didn’t sell. Rodriguez tried again, with 1971’s Coming from Reality, also on Sussex. And when that second album failed too, he disappeared.
But not really. Not in South Africa. And not in Zimbabwe and New Zealand, where bootleg copies of Rodriguez’s records sold. They sold a lot: going platinum in South Africa, and five times platinum in Australia. His songs became anthems for young white activists, calls to resist Apartheid, and only became more popular when the government banned them. (A South African archivist shows how the records were scratched to make sure that certain tracks could not played on the radio.) “For many of us in South Africa,” remembers Willem Möller, of the band Big Sky, “he was the soundtrack to our lives.”
This soundtrack persisted over decades, says Stephen Segerman, collector of all things Rodriguez. Segerman and filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul work together on the search, along with music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom. As they try to decipher clues in Rodriguez’s lyrics and sort through contracts for record sales payments, they come by different directions back to Detroit (including a decidedly strange interview with Sussex founder Clarence Avant, who may or may not know where money was going).
As Searching for Sugar Man makes its way toward Rodriguez, it uncovers still more stories, in the memories of fans and three of his daughters, who help paint a portrait of an artist committed to his ideals, to the value of manual labor and local connections. If the film doesn’t show much of the man’s life—how he came to know the hardships he details in his songs, how he lived during all those years when people said he was dead, how he came to have a first and then a second wife, neither of whom appears here. Even when he’s found, Rodriguez remains a mystery.
The Iran Job tracks another sort of search. At first, it looks like a sports documentary you might have seen before, the hopeful saga of a journeyman basketball player. Looking for work outside of the NBA, former Jacksonville University point guard Kevin Sheppard has been taking on short-term contracts with teams around the world, from China to Brazil to Israel. When, at the beginning of the film—which premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival—he gets an offer from a team in Iran, A.S. Shiraz, Kevin’s not instantly enthusiastic. The money’s good, he notes, but for good reasons, including restrictions on daily life and what seems an increasingly unstable political situation in 2008, a situation recalled here in news clips of warnings from Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and George W. Bush (“The notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is ridiculous; having said that, all options are on the table”).
Still, Kevin decides to go, with camera crew, leaving behind his fiancée Leah and his home in the Virgin Islands. “I’m nervous,” he says, “‘cause I want to get the hell over there and come back.” When he lands in Shiraz, in Southwestern Iran, the camera shows murals denouncing America, a black-skeletal Statue of Liberty and “Down With the USA” in English. He and his new roommate, Zoran Milicic from Serbia, complain that they have to wait over a month for promised access to the internet (worse, when it comes, Kevin says, most of the channels are pornographic, which he doesn’t need to be watching in a tiny apartment with another dude). The team is feeble too: during an early practice, Kevin is so frustrated that he walks out (“This shit ain’t basketball”). When the coach prevails on him to commit to the near impossible project of making the playoffs, Kevin becomes in essence an assistant coach, helping players on and off the court.
This project takes up much of Kevin’s energy and focus, no doubt, and the film delivers a few too many game and practice montages. He remarks on the odd behavior of the fans: they’re segregated by gender (boys on one side of the court, girls on the other), and “For some reason, they’re a little bit more crazy” than American fans, singing and dancing, no matter the action on the court. “It’s like stress relief,” Kevin observes. Kevin endures his own stress, instructed not to speak to reporters and also suffering an ankle injury.
Here The Iran Job takes a turn, as Kevin heads to the doctor’s and meets Hilda, his physical therapist and first Iranian friend. In turn, she introduces him to Laleh and Elaheh, and soon the foursome, along with Z—all in their 20s—are spending evenings in the men’s apartment. This even though it’s illegal for women to visit men’s quarters, and so they risk arrest, imprisonment, and beating. As the women describe their frustrations to Kevin, he comes to see beyond the usual demonization of Iran to what his friends want to preserve and also to change. “Somewhere else I might gain some freedom,” Laleh explains, “I prefer to stay and try to change the situation here.”
Kevin undergoes his own changes, between missing Leah when he calls home and working with his erratic but increasingly determined teammates. He’s also becoming more aware—thanks to his friends and what little internet they manage—to see what’s happening in the Iranian streets, as the Green Movement is taking hold. He’s especially moved by the girls’ resolve, their broad and sophisticated perspectives and their focus on details. Driving with Elaheh, he’s impressed at her multi-tasking (determined to look up a word he’s just used, she pulls out phone’s dictionary and starts hitting keys, “texting, typing, driving,” all at the same time). The film too provides an alternative view, most often thanks to Elaheh, who travels with the camera even without Kevin. “It is my dream to be a movie star,” she says, “But my father didn’t let me and I’m not a movie star now.” She smiles, a little sadly, contemplating a possible move to Tehran, which her father also forbids. When her phone rings, she translates for her companion, that it’s her mother, angry at her for being out late. “She says,” reports Elaheh, “‘You’re a bad girl.’”
The film here indicates the complications Elaheh and her friends face each day, their efforts to follow their parents’ edicts but also to explore the world around them, a world they can’t help but see and imagine now. At the basketball games, at work or on touristy excursions with Kevin and Z, the girls are enthusiastic and vibrant, thrilled by each new experience. The boys, in turn, come to recognize both their own privilege and deprivations in new lights: Z describes the effects of US bombing on his country, and Kevin compares black history in the US with what young people in Iran are going through. “I know what standing up for your rights is all about,” he says, “And I know it can lead to something.”
Where it may lead is not so clear, a point made when Kevin leaves Iran. He keeps in touch with his friends by skype, introducing them to Leah and promising to come back. The girls hover together in the computer frame, their faces shadowed. It’s a remarkable image, shot from over Kevin’s shoulder, hopeful and inspiring and also haunting.