The bio-doc finally understands what the British-Sri Lankan pop star was fighting for all along.
Long before M.I.A. was the pop star behind the Clash-sampled smash hit “Paper Planes” — a song we learn satirizes Western anti-immigrant prejudice — M.I.A. was Maya Arulpragasam, a Tamil resistance leader’s refugee daughter turned London aspiring documentary filmmaker rooted on American hip-hop.
“Why are you such a problematic pop star?” first-time director and long-time London art school friend Steve Loveridge asks Maya towards the beginning of filming M.I.A.’s new documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. A question one would ask a close friend in light-hearted humor, M.I.A. responds in candid, bratty fashion, giving the documentary an exclusively intimate look into the life of an international pop star and icon.
For fan’s unfamiliar with M.I.A.’s backstory, the documentary is a thrilling, insightful and raw look into her life and life’s mission. As the film whizzes back and forth from her upbringing in Sri Lanka, growing up a child of war, as the daughter to an estranged Tamil independence movement leader and activist to her current celebrity status. In a special eye-opening moment, the viewer gets to meet Maya’s father, the infamous Arular (who inspired M.I.A.’s debut album Arular and a founder of the Tamil resistance movement), when Maya films his visit home. When Maya’s siblings all seem to call their father a “deadbeat,” she remarkably takes a grateful stance by saying, “He’s made us damn interesting. He’s given us a bloody background!”
That background is something Maya continues to fight for and affects the rest of her life and career. When she moved to the U.K. as a Sri Lankan refugee with her family, she began to pursue documentary filmmaking at a London art school and started a friendship with Justine Frischmann of the 1990s Britpop band Elastica. When she joined them on tour, it was then that she realized she had a story of her own to tell. “Why don’t you use your voice to say something that matters” became a mantra she developed during a moment of weakness caught on tape on tour through personal video footage.
With a sound rooted in hip-hop mixed with South Asian instruments and lo-fi production values, M.I.A. the artist began to rise as she consistently proved herself a magnetic performer throughout the film. Early video tape footage shows her dancing to traditional South Asian music as a child, dancing both rhythmically and aggressive. Her unique bi-continental musical style shines as we see origins of her musical journey where she crafts her first album on a Roland 505 multitrack recorder to collaborating with then-lover and producer Diplo cultivating her style, sound and persona that record labels and executives couldn’t make sense of.
Even as she began to make waves in the mid-2000s, her story back home weighed heavily on her. Western media mocked her, calling her “Paki,” while her own homeland couldn’t take her seriously. “You never had the war zone experience,” one told her with a smirk at the camera during a 2001 trip back home to her hometown in Sri Lanka in an attempt to understand her background.
As a whole, Loveridge’s documentary is a wonderfully jarring, mismatched self-portrait of an artist itching to tell her family’s story while struggling to be accepted by it. As M.I.A.’s pop star status grew, so did the war back home.This only fueled her political activism. There are moments in the press where her 2009 “genocide” comments were meant to bring attention to the Tamil casualties, yet people designated her as a terrorist-sympathizer (the Tamil Tigers were seen as terrorists by international authorities at the time). She turned to her art when she released her graphic and provocative music video for “Born Free,” which depicts a genocide against ginger-headed white boys, commenting on the real-life crimes happening in Sri Lanka (the video was taken down from YouTube).
And most notably, we got an extremely revealing look into Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime performance when M.I.A. flipped the middle finger to America, generating rage from the NFL and a lawsuit set to break down the career of a woman, a person of color and a refugee seeking to voice the story of her people, the Tamils, and for all marginalized people worldwide.
When Madonna’s performance ended with the words “World Peace,” we can’t help but let out a little laugh. The Super Bowl — a symbol for America and its corporate giant — was ultimately M.I.A.’s moment to address everything wrong with the system as she, Madonna and Nicki Minaj paraded around during their halftime performance.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. gives the artist another chance to tell her story. It highlights the relentless fight Maya has endured throughout her career — a fight decades in the making, using music to voice the struggles of her people. From the sounds, laughter and children singing in the jungle and the cities captured on film, to the pure moments of happiness when Maya asks her grandmother for the most valuable thing she’s learned in life (where she humbly says to always do what makes you happy, because that will get you through life), Loveridge paints a captivating picture of M.I.A. We see an artist who is well aware of her own privilege yet strives to validate that privilege through seeking social justice through her art.
You can’t help but fall in love with the raw moments M.I.A. shares on camera, and Loveridge was able to somehow piece it all together in a politically-charged, angsty and sometimes tough to watch documentary that is incredibly memorable.
This documentary screened for the closing night of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival at the Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Below are a couple of photos from the event and closing night gala:
This article was featured on Blurred Culture.