«Why are you a problematic pop star? » director Stephen Loveridge asks M.I.A. in his documentary. The answers provided by the film point towards more than an uncompromising and sometimes challenging personality.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is not quite like most music documentaries. But then its subject, M.I.A., is also quite different from most pop stars.
From her debut album Arular (2005), she has positioned herself as a distinctive and innovative artist, combining elements from various genres such as hip hop, dancehall, electro, punk, and world music. Furthermore, due to her reluctance to follow the rules for ‘proper’ pop star behaviour – like when she showed her middle finger to the camera during a performance with Madonna at the American Super Bowl Show, or released a music video showing red-haired young men being executed – she has been called an « anti-pop star ».
Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam was born in London in 1975, but moved with her family to her parents’ native Sri Lanka when she was six months old. At the age of 11, she returned to London with her mother and siblings, since they were no longer safe in the civil war-torn country. While growing up, she had little contact with her father, a founding member of the militant Tamil group Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, which was later linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
A challenging process
Whether Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is a music documentary, can be also debated. When she first saw the film, M.I.A. was surprised that it didn’t contain more about her music. The director, Stephen Loveridge – a close friend of Maya since they both attended film studies in London in the nineties – was allegedly given full artistic freedom by the artist to make the documentary. However, his road to completing the film would turn out to be long and challenging. In 2013, Loveridge stated that he would « rather die » than continue working on the documentary, which was meant to be a more conventional ‘pop doc’, including interviews with various well-known collaboration partners. Today, both the artist and the director seem happy with representing the film in the media – a film that has become quite different from what M.I.A.’s management originally envisioned.
«M.I.A. has not least used her position to raise awareness of the political situation in Sri Lanka.»
What makes this film different is in large part due to the fact that the protagonist (who once wanted to become a documentary filmmaker herself) has recorded a lot of video footage, documenting her life over the years. Loveridge has said that he got access to more than 700 hours of such material, which makes up a substantial part of the finished film.
Through these recordings, the film depicts – among other things – Maya returning to Sri Lanka as a young woman, to get to know her background better. Prior to this, she had been part of the entourage of the Britpop act Elastica, fronted by her friend Justine Frischmann. Maya never really found her place here, and still nurtured the ambition to make documentaries. She might not have been completely up to the task, though: In an amusing scene, Frischmann chases after Maya on her way to catch a flight, having left her camera behind.
Nonetheless, the material Maya filmed in her parents’ country of origin is well suited to portray this crucial chapter in her life, gaining a broader understanding of her multicultural identity – which would eventually be an important part of both her lyrical and musical output. Tellingly, her first two albums Arular (2005) and Kala (2007) are named after her parents, and the following two (Maya, 2010, and Matangi, 2013) are titled after her own British and Tamil name, respectively.
M.I.A. has not least used her position as the only international pop star with Tamil background to raise awareness of the political situation in Sri Lanka. This does not seem to have been particularly easy, given that music journalists usually want to talk about other topics than genocide. For example, the film shows the American talk show host Bill Maher changing the subject of conversation to her London accent – presumably also to question the pop star’s authenticity as a spokesperson for the conflict she wants to discuss.
Similarly, a portrait interview in the New York Times made a sarcastic point out of M.I.A. eating truffle fries while talking about the massacre in Sri Lanka – not mentioning that it was the journalist herself who had ordered the dish.
Spokesperson or outspoken?
It’s easy to ridicule rich, famous and presumably superficial pop stars’ political engagement. And surely, it can be worthwhile to view artists sharing their ‘difficult’ personal histories for marketing purposes with some scepticism. In a part from her own footage in the film, Maya responds to a criticism levelled at her father by one of her siblings, stating that he has provided them with « an interesting background ». When she is in Sri Lanka, on the other hand, it is pointed out by another family member that the – in his eyes – British girl does not share their war zone experiences.
M.I.A. has been criticized for supporting the alleged terrorists of the Tamil Tigers, while not all Tamils either are comfortable with the musical artist being a spokesperson for their cause. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that her involvement isn’t genuine – or, for that matter, timely.
According to the artist, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is not the film she herself would have made. But that does not make it any less interesting. The film paints an energetic and rather unusual portrait of the person behind the music, including some of her less sympathetic sides. In doing so, it poses some thought-provoking questions regarding cultural representation, and about who gets to claim ownership to certain political issues.
I would certainly like to also see another film about M.I.A., made by the artist herself. Nonetheless, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A feels like an appropriate documentary for a fascinating, unconventional, and – to some – problematic, artist.