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'Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.' Documents A Complex Life In Pop Atop An Unrelenting World

The life of Matangi Arulpragasam, best known as M.I.A., is examined in the new documentary <em>Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. </em>Here, she performs in Denmark in 2011.
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The life of Matangi Arulpragasam, best known as M.I.A., is examined in the new documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. Here, she performs in Denmark in 2011.

Watching Steve Loveridge's new documentary, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., it was impossible not to be transported back to October 2004, to the very first thing that Maya Arulpragasam and I bonded over.

We were 20 minutes into M.I.A.'s second American interview, and what I then expected would be little more than a cursory chat with a young musician, one who had already began revealing a deeply unlikely back-story and oversized moxy. She was excited to talk, I was excited to listen, the occasion expected key notes revealing themselves on schedule, the media interaction humming. Yet the perfunctory chit-chat between journalist and pop-star-in-waiting swerved into territory that was unexpectedly personal, and anecdotes poured out.

You had to recognize and process the telling details, the calculated self-deprecations and worlds-colliding examples for them to come into a familiar focus; but here we were, at an unforeseen understanding of the immigrant experience. For all the differences between Eastern Bloc boys and South Asian girls that expat life in Western cities accentuates, our similarities aligned. I'd been doing this kind of work for a long time, even then, and I'd never had that feeling before, or since.

Many of the stories Maya told me nearly 14 years ago on that unusually warm Saturday afternoon in late October would become cornerstones of M.I.A.'s growing profile: her Sri Lankan upbringing, her Tamil Tiger-founding father and the plight of the Tamils; a refugee's move to London, with music and dance as medicine for disorientation and lost identity; how a council-flat "Paki" acquired a Brit-posh, art-school outlook — and the way all these things mutated inside her, manifesting in music and art.

As much as Maya's world-weariness stood out then — full of facts many in the press were already treating as marketing bombast, and others regarded as improprieties for budding starlets, especially brown ones, especially after 9/11 — so too did her grasp of how this perspective could upend the pop universe. She was at once circumspect and unguarded about her position, but also thrilled at its possibilities.

"I want it both ways," she said towards the end of that interview. "I'm political and I'm pop and I'm this and I'm that....And if who I am is confused, and the portrayals are all about having or not having an identity because of where I come from, that's kind of an alright state to reflect in my work. What [the industry] usually does is not let you be yourself. And that's really going to be my struggle, to stay me. I'm simply representing the refugee, a faceless thing, and I will always speak to that. Those are the roots, and I don't think they'll ever beat that out of me....But I'm also proud of what I learned in England too, the vast amount of information and opportunity and education. I use those things to apply what I want to say. The rest is figuring out which stories I can and want to tell."

There was, at that point, little music to M.I.A.'s name. Just a couple of singles, plus Piracy Funds Terrorism, the mixtape provocation she made with a skilful, still-emerging mashup DJ named Diplo. Yet the dawn of the blogosphere meant those few M.I.A. tracks could cross borders — national, musical, cultural — at a then-unprecedented pace.

In the final, edited-down-to-5000-words interview (generously published in the late, great Arthur Magazine) she came across as cognizant of how both her story's singularity and its inherent contradiction would end up a spanner in works of a cultural machine — the music industry — she'd already observed up close through befriending Elastica's Justine Frischmann. Her tactics seemed both revolutionary and naive, especially in those years before the identity breakthroughs of the Obama years — breakthroughs which themselves seem to be receding daily.

It is the synthesis of these contradictions, and how they've illuminated M.I.A.'s career path that makes up the spine of Loveridge's fascinating portrait. Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. documents the discrepancies and tensions inherent in immigrants' lives, the ones between inherited traditions and assimilated values. Of course, in Maya's case, the circumstances are doubly compounded, by a unique and extreme legacy of a father who is the founder of a rebel group that innovated suicide bombing, and of M.I.A.'s desire to chart a globally and politically aware celebrity path rather than sweep the messy stuff under the rug. The story was never going to be easy.

As with Amy — Asif Kapadia's 2015 exploration of Amy Winehouse's tragic life — much of the film's footage is provided by the artist herself, which makes the first-hand corroboration hard to refute. Maya developed her always-be-shooting habit as a student filmmaker at Central St. Martin's, while the other footage was shot by Loveridge, a classmate who remained a lifelong friend, and who independently helmed the project from the get-go. (Loveridge has said that he did not show Maya a final edit until just before the film made its debut at Sundance this winter, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award.)

Though Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is chronologically inconsistent, there is a visual through-line: Matangi's life-altering 2001 trip to Sri Lanka. She went there to simultaneously document the plight of the Tamils during the island country's civil war, her family's story and her own journey of self-discovery. Yet it pointedly includes scenes of relatives telling the westernized Maya that, by leaving her homeland, she could never really comprehend the horror of what had occurred there ("you never had the war-zone experience"), in such a way that it undermines the value of familial kinship, and bedevils her search for roots and peace. "Why was it me that got away?" she asks vulnerably, while watching training videos of women Tigers.

A little over a decade later, M.I.A. is backstage at the Super Bowl, after a halftime performance with Madonna during which she flipped off the global audience (while, it must be contextually noted, lip-synching the lyric "I don't give a shit"). In quick succession, she defiantly celebrates her relationship to the system ("That's what I do!"), is confronted by soon-to-be-litigious NFL officials, and then, having snuck out (of the Super Bowl!!!), is curled up on a hotel-room couch, bewilderingly sizing up her own actions ("What have I done?"). It is a display of superstardom's extreme effects on the self, the glamourization and the constriction, a confounding hall of mirrors rising around her.

If, as the film argues, the effects of the refugee and immigrant experience have always been the essence of M.I.A.'s work — providing material for "Paper Planes," her biggest hit and a leftfield Grammy nominee, which also recently topped NPR Music's list of the Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women — they've also worked as gateways into related conversations. Maya's pop existence intertwined the personal and the political with then-little precedent, and as the patriarchy struck back, the issues that would arise around her media appearances foreshadowed today's front-page identity narratives.

It is a canny — and timely — editorial choice on Loveridge's part to feature footage of Jian Ghomeshi cross-examining Maya on CBC Radio, just after clips of Bill Maher, who having invited Matangi onto his HBO show to discuss the Sri Lanka civil war, trolled her. "Why, if you're from this island nation, do you sound like Mick Jagger?" Maher asks, the audience revelling in the landed punchline, before concluding what began as an interview and ended as a skit, with the brush-off, "Good luck with that, I know it's a difficult situation."

This intersectional s***storm depicts a woman in the crosshairs of men with soon-to-be-exposed gender biases (or, in Gomeshi's case, far worse), her defining societal status questioned. It also belies a pair of long-standing contemporary challenges: Which members of the entertainment industry have license to cross the political commentary divide? And exactly how do these people, usually women or minorities, make their voices on personally important issues heard without being ostracised or mocked? ("If you come from the struggle, how the f*** do you talk about the struggle, without talking about the struggle?" she asks herself, and the camera, indignantly.)

Though Matangi's views on the Sri Lankan Civil War were fundamentally one-sided, M.I.A. was also easily the most high-profile Tamil in the Western lens, one whose beliefs birthed her mission statement and powered her art. "It's best she stay with what she's good at," says a dismissive Sri Lanka government representative to Tavis Smiley, when booked on the public television host's talk-program as Matangi's counterweight.

What neither the Sri Lankan official nor most of M.I.A.'s interlocutors understood was that, even more than music, art or video, Maya's primary practice was bundling pop communication and socio-politicized points of view into moments of media belligerence—moments that reminded Western society of global responsibilities in spaces of amusement and leisure. And that despite the occasional yearning for political creative expression, these are the spaces in which Western society most wants to forget. M.I.A. could not stop her practice if she wanted to. When your identity is so fully formed in-between cultures, the mask and the real face are forever interchangeable. Though Matangi would probably hate the old English reference, it's like an update of Lear's fool for the refugee era, if the fool never had the choice but to be the truth-teller.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. doesn't directly address one of the woes of Internet-era pop engagement that its subject's very existence has brought to light. How to disconnect from the world without abandoning it?

In one of the film's few restful scenes, which takes place deep into her superstardom, a dejected Maya pontificates a kind of survivor's guilt to the camera, imagining a clean break from music to become a "nautical engineer" to rescue refugees on the high seas. Even the privilege she's earned to get away from it all by injecting "swagger like us" rebellion into the narrative of flight, is infected by it. Her dejection manifests itself as a golden mean of the poignant and the ridiculous.

Therefore, there's ironic perfection that, in the film's first and next-to-last scenes, Maya is indeed commandeering a flotilla of boats with a walkie talkie. And yet, post-graduate engineering work would still have to wait. She was shooting a music video, for a song called "Borders."

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