Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): An intimate and dynamic portrait of M.I.A.

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Documentary film “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.”, which received the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, is an intimate and dynamic portrait of one renowned female musician who is not only very talented but also quite opinionated. As looking around here and there in her extraordinary life and career, the documentary often provides a number of moments both revealing and compelling, and we come to have some understanding on her irrepressible spirit and talent.

The early part of the documentary revolves around the early years of M.I.A., who was born as Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam in Sri Lanka, 1975. Because her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Resistance Movement around that time, she and her mother and siblings became refugees as the civil war in Sri Lanka got intensified, and they eventually immigrated to Britain in 1985 while her father remained in Sri Lanka for continuing his fight against the Sri Lankan government.

Because she wanted to be not only a musician but also a filmmaker, M.I.A. had heaps of archival footage clips which were shot during her adolescent years in South London, and we see some of those archival footage clips while she reminisces about her adolescent years. She tells us an amusing episode about how she happened to encounter hip-hop music for the first time, and we also get to know about her rather estranged relationship with her father, whose political background influenced and inspired her a lot nonetheless.

One of the most memorable moments in the documentary comes from a series of archival footage clips showing her visit to Sri Lanka in 2001. While meeting several family members including her dear grandmother, she became more conscious of her cultural/ethnic identity, and she accordingly came to feel more of the need to express her thoughts and feelings through her music.

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And then the chance soon came to her. Not long after working for British rock band Elastica as their music video director, she came to the recording studio of XL Recordings with her several songs including “Galang” in 2004, and the following success of “Galang” was followed by her first album “Arular”, which turned her into a new hip-hop musician to watch. After that, she further advanced with her second album “Kala” in 2006, and she subsequently received an Oscar nomination for her collaboration with A.R. Rahman in “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008).

However, due to her consistently outspoken attitude, she frequently got herself into troubles and controversies. As she frequently expressed her supportive position on the Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka while also openly criticizing the Sri Lankan government in public, she came to be criticized a lot by numerous detractors including the Sri Lankan government, and the documentary shows us how unfairly she was mistreated by the media, which is exemplified well by the excerpt from Lynn Hirschberg’s scathing New York Times profile on her.

While trying to handle her enormous fame and pressure, she kept moving on, and then she came upon more troubles and controversies. Her new music video was criticized for being too blatant and gratuitous in its graphic depiction of violence, and there was also that notorious incident during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, where she performed along with Madonna on the stage. In the middle of the show, she committed a small act of defiance which inadvertently offended lots of people, and she was even sued by National Football League (NFL) although, as she points out at one point, nobody got hurt from her action.

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As freely moving between several different time points, the documentary is occasionally confusing at times, but it ultimately works as a kaleidoscopic collage which illuminates the talent and personality of M.I.A. with some insights to observe. Despite all those troubles and controversies throughout her career, she does not step back at all as a strong-willed woman who has always been driven to be direct and outspoken in her artistic activities. She may not fully grasp where her life and career are going at present, but she is determined to keep going on anyway, and that is evidently glimpsed from the opening scene and the closing scene of the documentary, which showing her enthusiastically preparing for shooting her latest music video along with others.

I heard that there was some tension between Loveridge and M.I.A. during the production of the documentary, but, as far as I can see from the final result, Loveridge did a commendable job of presenting his human subject with respect and honesty. Thanks to his editors Marina Katz and Gabriel Rhodes, the documentary fluidly flows from one moment to another without a hiccup, and the score by Dhani Harriso and Paul Hicks is effectively mixed along with several hit songs of M.I.A. including “Paper Plane”, which I still remember well after watching how it was wonderfully used in “Slumdog Millionaire”.

Although I think it could have been more focused and coherent in its non-linear storytelling approach, “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” is still engaging enough to recommend on the whole, and you may find yourself becoming a bit more interested in the works of M.I.A., if you are, like me, not so familiar with her career. She is indeed a remarkable person and artist, and I hope she will keep going as usual.

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