Documentary Review: ‘Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.’

Review by James Lindorf

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. paints an intimate portrait of refugee/artist/activist Mathangi Arulpragasam, whose friends call her Maya and the world knows as M.I.A. She hit the big time in 2008 with her song “Paper Planes” which was featured in the film Slumdog Millionaire and garnered her both an Oscar and Grammy nomination. She scored significant headlines again four years later, this time for giving the middle finger to the camera during her Super Bowl halftime performance with Madonna. The stunt invoked the moral wrath of many Americans and the fury of the NFL legal department. Since her family fled Sri Lanka for London, it seems that there has always been a camera near Maya. This film makes excellent use of her personal recordings collected over the last 22 years. Director Steve Loveridge’s Sundance award-winning film will begin a limited theatrical run starting September 28th. If there isn’t a screening near you now there could be one soon.

The film follows Maya’s life up close and personal from leaving Sri Lanka around 9 years old, to how her new home in London exposed her to Pop and Hip-Hop music which ultimately served as both a passion and a coping mechanism. It follows her on a return trip home to Sri Lanka and on tour with her first exposure to live music. Her rise to fame juxtaposed with the declining situation in her homeland is the most powerful stretch of the film, as two things struggle to coexist. The movie’s warmth lies in the scenes of her dancing with her friends and family in her London apartment or playing with the children while she stayed with her Grandmother in 2001.

Of course, you would think that a film about MI.A. starring M.I.A. made by her friend from college would only paint her in the best light, but she was not afraid to let Loveridge tell the darker sides of her story and show her as not always being 100% right. One thing that may have improved Loveridge’s story telling would be if he presented it chronologically instead of jumping back and forth from current day to 2001 or even further back. This would have shown a linear progression of Maya and how she was shaped by the different events going on around her. With the constant time jumping, it is hard to remember precisely which event took place first, unless there is a distinct difference in video quality.

Using a great deal of archival footage didn’t allow much chance for Loveridge to include his own dynamic camera work in his film. However, that doesn’t mean the movie is without its beautifully shot moments. Loveridge sampled wisely from the work of Romain-Gavras’s who directed M.IA.’s “Bad Girls” and “Born Free” which are both stunning and for very different reasons. The video for “Born Free” was one pulled from YouTube because it was deemed too graphic. It is back up today, just with a double warning about its content.

Fans and novices alike can find many things to grasp onto with this film. The intimate behind-the-scenes videos should thrill any fan, and the deep dive into her passion-filled and evolving political nature contains a wealth of information for novices who may have missed her star turn a decade ago. One thing that most viewers will be surprised to see is that this isn’t just an excuse to promote a new album or to encourage us to download all these tracks. Instead, it is just her story, and like its star the film is full of passion that is delivered in a raw and slightly haphazard way.

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