UK Release Date: 21st September 2018
Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Steve Loveridge
Writer: Steve Loveridge
Starring: Mathangi Arulpragasam (MIA)
Synopsis: Using home video footage as well as new interviews with key figures, this doc tells the story of British-Tamil rapper MIA and her journey to musical fame and prominence as a political activist.
I confess to not being particularly familiar with the British rapper MIA prior to seeing Steve Loveridge‘s new documentary about her life. In fact, the only thing I knew about her was the irritating and ubiquitous ‘Paper Planes’ song – the one with the cash register noises – she released back in 2008. However, through the story of Matangi/Maya/MIA, Loveridge teases out the true complexity and intrigue of a woman who is as much a political activist as she is a pop star.
The triptych title refers to three different phases of the protagonist’s life. Matangi is a nod to her upbringing in Sri Lanka, coloured by the fact her father was a key member of a controversial political group affiliated with the Tamil Tigers. The family were forced to move back to London, where she became Maya and subsequently developed the rap persona that would lead to her being known as MIA. Her ambitions to become a filmmaker meant she documented and recorded much of her early life, and it is this footage, along with new additions from Loveridge, that forms the spine of Matangi/Maya/MIA.
The ultimate test of a documentary is always whether it can intrigue a newbie to the subject, and that is certainly something that this pulls off. MIA is an eloquent and insightful figure who is driven by a sense of injustice and a genuine desire to use her platform to advance political causes in which she believes. Scenes in which she discusses the reaction to her ‘Born Free’ video, depicting the brutal abuse of ginger people as an analogue for other atrocities, showcase her bemusement at a society that finds fictional violence disgusting, but happily shares footage of real-life executions. This bemusement resurfaces when MIA ignites a global shitstorm for flipping the bird at the camera during her performance with Madonna and Nicki Minaj at the 2012 Super Bowl. As she hides from the NFL bosses coming to chastise her, she’s every inch the rebellious schoolgirl hiding from a headteacher.
Matangi/Maya/MIA reflects that viewpoint of its subject in showing graphic images of real dead bodies, earning a rare 18 certificate for the doc. This is a long way from a sunny description of a pop star or an examination of fame. It’s a deft and interesting portrait of a woman who chose to never shut up, told with flair and fire. The issues that inspire passion in MIA are present and correct, but it also never shies away from her central dichotomy of voicing these views from a position of immense financial privilege. She’s a prickly, abrasive character at the best of times, worn down by the nonsense of fame and the horrors she has witnessed in her life.
The most affecting portions of the movie follow MIA as she meets with members of her family back in Sri Lanka, in an environment where her fame means very little. Her interactions with relatives are touching and simple, allowing her to feel more comfortable than when she’s dealing with what she describes as the constantly shifting goalposts of being a famous person with a platform. The documentary rambles and meanders as it crosses the globe with its subject, but the strength and clarity of her art and her voice is what carries it through.
Matangi/Maya/MIA does suffer in some respects from being a little too close to its subject, lacking the forensic detachment of an Asif Kapadia movie. However, it’s that closeness that gives it the sense of passion and fury that makes it such a gripping watch. For fans of MIA’s music, this almost certainly isn’t the film you would expect. For those, however, keen to know more about the woman behind the catchy, unique songs, this seldom misses a step.
Pop or Poop?
From the neon colours of its opening scene to the horrifying glimpses of wartime atrocities, Matangi/Maya/MIA is a bracing music documentary with a difference. MIA is a complicated and unusual brand of pop icon, but there’s certainly something inspiring about the way she uses her rebellious bravery and firmness of politics to advance causes about which she is passionate.
Mind you, that ‘Paper Planes’ song is still exceptionally annoying.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.