In 1985, the wave of Sri Lankan refugees to South London included 10-year-old Mathangi Arulpragasam, her mother, brother and sister. Her father Arular Arulpragasam — the leader in the Tamil Resistance Movement, which much of the world deemed terrorists — remained in Sri Lanka.
“This is what happened to a kid whose dad became a terrorist,” says a tearful Arulpragasam, speaking to a VHS camcorder in the 1990s. It eases us into a layered hour-and-a-half biopic, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., that deepens our understanding of the multifaceted artist and activist known solely as M.I.A.
The M.I.A. I got to know is in part because Western pop culture usually sees her through the lens of misfortune. Her position as an unapologetic woman of colour and her daring artistry make her the type of icon that some consumers of pop culture, like myself, use as a reference in the often Westernised spaces we have to navigate.
Director Stephen Loveridge has a personal relationship with M.I.A — they were in the same class at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London — so there is a feeling that Loveridge didn’t need to spell out the catalysts that formed M.I.A. Their long friendship afforded him the personal access that eliminates the distance that sometimes exists between a subject and director in a documentary portrait or personal essay.
Testament to this is a segment of the film that focuses on her initial interest in the medium to tell stories. In it, Loveridge co-narrates and showcases some of his archive footage when he and the artist worked on filming techniques as students.
In addition to his archives, the artist’s early aspirations of becoming a documentary filmmaker affords him a trove of footage of the artist as Matangi in Sri Lanka, Maya in the United Kingdom and M.I.A. to the world. With her interview archives, music videos, news bulletin references and new footage, Loveridge and M.I.A. piece the visuals together to create a collage of the experiences that developed the artist.
Although Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. makes extensive reference to her work and development as an artist, it does not come over as a formative narrative. Instead, the film is laced with themes such as the placelessness that comes with immigration and the plight of people who call war-torn countries home, and the question of whether pop culture can serve as political activism.
One example of this occurs about halfway through the film, at a time that some may see as the peak of M.I.A.’s career. Just as the viewer relaxes into a scene of a pregnant M.I.A.’s memorable 2009 Grammy performance, the film cuts to news footage about the Sri Lankan civil war’s bloody final phase. After decades of battle, the country’s military had gained the strength to overcome the Tamil Resistance Movement.
Through the Tamil artist’s lens, we are introduced to the mass killings that took place under the guise of fighting the movement, as the ethnic cleansing that M.I.A. refers to in The Tavis Smiley Show talk radio show as genocide. This serves as a reminder that, although viewers can filter what they consume and distance themselves from the fact that M.I.A. is part of Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority, it continues to be a defining part of her.
When talk show hosts attempt to censor her or move away from the “ugly news”, M.I.A. reminds the public of her duty to her country. “Being the only Tamil in Western media, I have an opportunity to bring forward what’s going on in Sri Lanka.”
Although some may feel the film’s pace is too slow, it allows a detailed narrative that gives us insight into how each song and music video came to be. It stands as evidence that, although the pop world may celebrate M.I.A. as a pop icon, her goal was not fame.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. will be screened at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival from May 31 to June 10 in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Visit encounters.co.za for scheduling information