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Malik Bendjelloul, Oscar-winning 'Searching for Sugar Man' director, dies

From Jane Caffrey and Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 3:34 PM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
Click through to see<a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/world/obituaries-2014'> people who died</a> in 2014. Click through to see people who died in 2014.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Director Malik Bendjelloul died suddenly in Stockholm, Sweden, police say
  • Bendjelloul directed "Searching for Sugar Man," which won a best documentary Oscar
  • Police say foul play is not suspected in the filmmaker's death

(CNN) -- Malik Bendjelloul, the acclaimed Swedish director who ran out of cash and finished shooting his Oscar-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man" with a smartphone app, died suddenly Tuesday in Stockholm, police said. He was 36.

No crime is suspected in the death of the filmmaker, who won the 2013 Academy Award for his debut feature about an obscure American crooner who gained fame abroad but remained virtually unknown at home, Stockholm Police Sgt. Janne Gyllstedt told CNN.

Gyllstedt would not specify the cause of death and said he was unable to disclose any additional information.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer from Detroit who became a legend in South Africa. With lyrics such as "The system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune," Rodriguez unwittingly became the voice of the anti-Apartheid struggle in the 1970s, even as his records flopped in his own country.

Oscars 'on same level' as Nobel Prize?
Searching for Sugar Man

"A man who lives his whole life in Detroit working as a construction worker, without knowing that, at the very same time, he's more famous than Elvis Presley in another part of the world," Bendjelloul told CNN's Poppy Harlow in 2012. "I thought it was the most beautiful story I've ever heard in my life."

"Searching for Sugar Man" producer Simon Chinn said in a statement: "I felt so fortunate when Malik came into my life, with his charm, optimism and boundless energy and lack a guile, and now he is gone. It feels like a bright light has been snuffed out."

He added, "As a filmmaker he was an inspiration -- someone who, despite his relative inexperience, was driven by a passion and determination to do justice to the great story he had found and to prove those (who) had doubted he could do it, of which there were too many, wrong. How he proved them wrong! I feel honoured to have gone on this journey with him, and I simply can't believe he is gone."

Tom Bernard and Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics compared Bendjelloul to the subject of his debut feature.

"Much like Rodriguez himself, Malik was a genuine person who chased the world for stories to tell," they said in a joint statement. "He didn't chase fame or fortune or awards, although those accolades still found him as many others recognized his storytelling."

After running out of money for the film, Bendjelloul finished shooting the documentary using an iPhone app.

"I started shooting with a Super 8 camera which, in the end, was too expensive," he told CNN. "How am I going to finish? Then one day I realized there was this app for the iPhone called the Super 8 app. It was $1. It worked very well. Actually, I used that for the film."

The film gets its title from "Sugar Man," a 1970 Rodriguez song about a drug peddler.

"It was this lost masterpiece, like a Cinderella story, a fairy tale," Bendjelloul said of Rodriguez's life. "I never heard anything like that. A story that was so rich and true."

Bendjelloul, who was born on September 17, 1977, in Sweden, performed in the Swedish TV series "Ebba och Didrik" as a child in the 1990s and later studied journalism and media production at the Linnaeus University of Kalmar, according to imdb.com.

He produced several musical documentaries for Swedish TV. Bendjelloul also worked as a reporter on the show "Kobra" until he resigned to travel the world, which was when he first came across the story of Rodriguez, according to imdb.com.

"It's a touching story that hits you in the heart," he said. "And also he's such a lovable character. Everyone falls in love with him. He's a person you can actually really love."

In 2013, his debut feature beat out "5 Broken Cameras," "The Gatekeepers," "How to Survive a Plague" and "The Invisible War" for best documentary.

"Oh boy!" Bendjelloul said in his acceptance speech. "Thanks to one of the greatest singers ever, Rodriguez."

Bendjelloul had likened the Oscar to winning his native country's Nobel Prize. "This is the only one that is on the same level," he said.

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CNN's Ray Sanchez and Nischelle Turner contributed to this report.

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