“There are loads of people here who can empathise with what it’s like to have a dad who became a banker, a lawyer, a judge, or whatever. And this is what happened to a kid whose dad went off and became a terrorist. And this is how it fucked up the family. And fucked up a country.” These are the powerful opening words of an explosive artist, in a documentary pieced together from over 700 hours of footage shot across the course of M.I.A.'s life, the finished product often sounding as raw and direct as its subject.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. has been a long time in the making, taking almost seven years to finally reach its final version. Five years ago director Stephen Loveridge leaked an extended trailer after distancing himself from the project, going so far as to say he’d rather “die than complete it”. Funding dried up after Interscope pulled the plug and only when a new backer stepped in at the seventh hour was Loveridge able to make the film he first envisaged.
There aren’t any musicians like M.I.A. and that requires a slightly unconventional approach to telling her story. She is an artist with an undefined singular identity and yet that is exactly what makes her so distinguishable. Similarly, there aren’t many multi-platinum selling musicians whose father was heavily involved in trying to overthrow the government in their home country.
Mathangi Arulpragasam came to South London at the age of 11 in 1986, leaving behind a father who was one of the founders of the Tamil Resistance and responsible for training volunteers engaged in guerilla warfare in Sri Lanka against the government (this movement later become the Tamil Tigers). Not much has been documented on film about the Asian experience in the UK during the 80s and Maya recalls the difficulties of relocating to a predominantly white country while her father is back home on the front lines of a civil war.
Where her brother and sister were conflicted about their father’s freedom fighting, Maya gained strength and a sense of inspiration. Loveridge points toward moments like these as being crucial to the artist we know today, even including footage of a conversation with her dad about his experiences when he eventually joined the family in London some years later. Her outspoken views on the Sri Lankan civil war have seen her labelled a terrorist sympathiser over the course of her career by a media happy to manipulate an identity they use on their own terms.
From her falling in with Elastica’s Justine Welch in the mid-90s (one of the most prominent bands during the Britpop era) to being given the chance to go on tour to make a documentary about the group, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. then shows her heading back to Sri Lanka to revisit her family. Upon her return it is then she launched herself into the music world, grabbing the attention of XL Records, collaborating with then little known producer Diplo and beginning her path towards international recognition.
For such a creative artist whose melting pot influences extend further than the majority of musicians in the West, it does feel like a glaring omission by Loveridge not to include anything to do with her creative process. The lack of music was an issue Maya immediately picked up on following its Sundance premiere, and more insight into her production, inspiration and lyrics would only have strengthened the person we are shown. Did you know Paper Planes was about the perception of immigrants coming to a new country and stealing what ‘belongs’ to the natives? Unfortunately, that's about as far we step into that territory.
The good and bad side of M.I.A. comes through naturally in the rough-cut footage, revealing her naivety, stubbornness and attention-grabbing traits, while also showing her sharp wit, playfulness and willingness to tackle the sort of weighty topics the pop world usually avoids at all costs. There is nothing premeditated about how this documentary has been put together, and it fits in with the unpredictability and openness she has displayed throughout her whole career.
M.I.A. announced her ‘retirement’ from music with her last album in 2016 and it remains to be seen whether she holds true to that or finds new methods of telling her stories. Despite the absence of her music this feels like a documentary made by a lifelong friend who perhaps understands the complexities of Maya better than anyone else. Loveridge has made it a celebration of an artist who simply by being herself has defied categorisation since blasting onto the scene in the early 00s, warts and all.
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A is released in UK cinemas on Friday 21st September. Visit the website here