Coming out though documentary purveyors Dogwoof the documentary Matangi/ Maya/ MIA details the life of singer, artist, activist’s Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam colourful if tumultuous journey from refugee to pop stardom. At the age of nine, in the mid-80s Maya along with her family, flee to UK from Sri Lanka as a result of her father one of the instigators of the Tamil resistance, who were conducive to the country’s 25-year civil war. As they settle in council flat in Brixton, Maya and her siblings absorb western popular culture, with her creative inclinations surfacing in teenagehood, as she starts to document familial moments with her video camera. Such footage as well future self-recordings, are used by director Steven Loveridge and interwoven as continual flashbacks throughout the documentary’s biographical arc.
At Central School of St. Martins Maya meets Loveridge, both forming an artistic collaboration, which includes documenting the tour of well known 90's indie band Elastica. An intimate friendship between Maya and lead singer Justine Frischmann, to the dismay the other bandmates. Maya’s youthful liveliness is met with great disapproval. After an extended trip, a pilgrimage of sorts, to Sri Lanka in the early noughties to spend time with extended family members, Maya return to the UK, seeking to channel her creativity into music. Seizing the day, she puts all her efforts into curating a mix-match of beats from alternative, rap, dance, electronic, hip hop and world music, with a knack of hooking up with leftfield producers, coupled with her own intrinsic sense of guerrilla style which permeates through the styling, artwork and live shows; M.I.A. starts to carve her own niche, from the very beginning. From her first single Galang to the second album’s stratospheric hit Paper Planes although way to her controversial appearance supporting Madonna at super bowl.
Maya is a restless spirit, with a innate need to express herself creatively and politically. Her artistic vision is always very clear and concise. Loveridge presents his mercurial subject in a very caring and loving way, providing a space for her to voice her thoughts and concerns, which have been perpetually shut down or misrepresented by the world’s media. You do see the tarnish of time, the innocent attention seeking young girl becomes slightly hardened by the conitnuous media misrepresentation as well the personal trappings of fame and success.
It’s the situations that MIA inadvertently creates that hold the most merit. The middle finger at Madonna’s Super Bowl concert; its 2014 and yet a mischievous middle finger seems to riddle up Middle America and Fox News, the wrong way, reflecting the intrinsic conservativeness of the country. A cringeworthy phone conversation with a potential music manager, where Maya innocently exclaims ‘can you get my song on the radio’ symbolizing the sorry state of the music industry and the dated concepts of radio playlists. Or the way her rather brilliantly controversial redhead genocide music video for Born Free cooked up a big media frenzy for its violent portrayal, yet Maya causally explains it as a reflection of what happens to people, mostly non-white, all around the world, all the time.
Celebrities combining, their successful creative pursuits with activism, is usually met with judgement. Of course, the action itself should be welcomed, but in some way the wealth and status accrued is conducive to the inequality they are campaigning against. This is not to say this documentary is completely problem free, but perhaps Maya’s personal experience warrants her activism credible. Her wealth, life-style or how the media portray her, eventually do dumb the message, but her engagement with her causes still seeps through in all her endeavours. AnMaya possesses such wide-eyed exuberance, beauty and attitude and even in the moments of clumsiness or self-indulgence, she remains captivatingly magnetic.
Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A. is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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