(Release Info London schedule, October 1st, 2018, Picturehouse Central, 21:10)
Drawn from a cache of personal video recordings from the past 22 years, director Steve Loveridge’s "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A" is a startlingly personal profile of the critically artist, chronicling her remarkable journey from refugee immigrant to pop star.
She began as 'Matangi'. Daughter of the founder of Sri Lanka’s armed 'Tamil Resistance', she hid from the government in the face of a vicious and bloody civil war. When her family fled to 'The UK', she became 'Maya', a precocious and creative immigrant teenager in London. Finally, the world meets her as 'M.I.A.' when she emerges on the global stage, having created a mashup, cut-and-paste identity that pulled from every corner of her journey along the way; a sonic sketchbook that blended 'Tamil' politics, art school punk, hip-hop beats and the unwavering, ultra-confident voice of a burgeoning multicultural youth. Never one to compromise on her vision, Maya keeps her camera rolling throughout.
Mathangi Arulpragasam has been a huge force in music for decades, but despite her public presence and outspoken nature, she has been something of an enigma, guarded in her personal life. The film builds from a rich trove of never-before-seen video Maya shot over the course of her life, a raw and subjective record, as its primary source. It's an unprecedented window into the musician’s innermost reflections on art, politics, and identity, and how vital the confluence of those things has been for her. The fact that Maya gives control over the project, in addition to her archives, speaks to the artistic connection that binds the pair, who met at 'St. Martin’s College' in the mid 90s while attending school for fine art with a focus on film and video. They found each other as young students in part because they both felt like outsiders in the art world environment, though they had vastly different backgrounds. Maya had fled 'The Sri Lankan Civil War' with her family as a child, first to relocate to India, then to 'The UK', leaving behind a father with alleged ties to 'The Tamil Tigers', a controversial rebel group in a hugely complex and misunderstood conflict. She grew up an immigrant and a refugee on a housing estate in southwest London, an experience which would heavily influence her work as an artist.
The film describes the friends as opposites in temperament as well. Maya has seen much of the world and finds quite mundane. It seems far more sophisticated than very shy. The film dazzles Maya’s kinetic energy, her ability to turn everything into an adventure. She's good at being poor and having fun on no money and making everything into this exciting experience, like going to the supermarket was really interesting all of a sudden because we were looking for certain colors or certain shapes on packets of food, or because we’d go to the cool kid at the checkout instead of the one with the shortest queue. In animation, graphics, and illustration, the film expresses her creative and political ideas. As her artistic voice develops, Maya gravitates to pop music because that's what had fed her. Fine art is too elitist, and writing novels is too elitist, it's all sort of out of reach for her, that side of culture. In parallel to her interest in music, Maya’s constant impulse to photograph, film, or otherwise document her experience and surroundings, resulted in a thorough chronicle of her daily life. To the many who know Maya only as the pop star, there are many intriguing moments to be found within her footage; her candid, direct-to-camera addresses; her time in her early 20s traveling back to Sri Lanka to reconnect with her extended family and political heritage and her seminal Britpop band 'Elastica' in the late 90s.
The footage shows Maya thoughtful analysis of her experiences and identity; an identity that has been heavily dissected and scrutinized by the wider public. In one moment culled from Maya’s archival store, she and her siblings debate the effect their refugee status and father’s absence have had on their upbringing. Maya proclaims proudly that their experience has made them stronger and more interesting. This could be read as bravado, but if so, bravado with sincere emotional underpinnings. It's through scenes like this that "M.I.A." upends a common accusation that Maya’s identity is partly fabricated, or that she has exploited her past to give herself street cred and boost album sales. People were immediately skeptical, and everything's always framed in the context of, oh this gives you cool points that your dad’s a militant, or that you’re an immigrant, or that you’re a brown woman in the industry. People are cynical about how much that’s feeding a kind of hipster authenticity. While the film is neither defensive nor indicting of Maya as an opinionated public figure, the film’s coverage of her upbringing refutes any claim that her story has been misrepresented for her personal gain.
To the contrary, as Maya's story unfolds, what becomes evident is her consistent, and seemingly fearless, commitment to putting her authentic self into her work, whether or not it's a voice the industry and audience would embrace. The film indicates that regardless of how wealthy or famous she became, finding that success by taking ownership over her multiple marginalized identities was neither easy nor safe. “M.I.A." can read sometimes as a project like this ball of chaos, but actually when you really step back from it, like the film does, there's a logic to it, and a sort of consistency in her vision, all the way through, from a long time before she became a musician, just a quest to represent and nail down her identity, and own the positives and negatives about who she's. The film is extraordinary not just because of the existing source footage, but how that footage is blended into a completed work that takes us up to the present day. It can feel as though the film of Maya’s life has been cut to the emotional rhythm of her work, unified in its artistic vision as the artist has been in her career. The film evades the conventions of the traditional music documentary, the flattering PR piece, or the tightly managed vision of artist-as-brand, because it tells a story that could not be made from collected outside sources alone.
Maya the pop star, is the least present in this film. It’s out there in the world for people that wanna find it, and this is a film about you. Though the film does follow Maya in the years after she became a well-known personality, it shows us what we thought we knew with fresh eyes. In focusing on Maya as a person, helps illuminate 'M.I.A.' the artist. What all the intimate and unflinching archival and newer material cumulatively reveal is an outspoken activist whose work has always sprung from a deeply rooted desire to speak against oppression and injustice. Maya’s preoccupation with the immigrant experience isn’t some bit of celebrity narcissism; it's the story of her life informing a wider consciousness. Although many documentary portraits of musicians constructed out of archival exist, this is a portrait of a still living person, someone controversial and complex who's rarely depicted with compassion or nuance in the media, with whom he has a close relationship. The story is sometimes traumatic, sometimes fabulous right rests solely with the artist herself. She’s definitely an artist right down to her core. "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A" provides unparalleled, intimate access to the artist in her battles with the music industry and mainstream media as her success and fame explodes, becoming one of the most recognizable, outspoken and provocative voices in music today.