TWSS Magazine Issue #16 ‘Crossing the Border’ is out now. To continue the discourse around refugee experience, Anjum Nahar reviews Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A., a must-watch of 2018.
We already know that M.I.A. (real name “Maya” Arulpragasam) is an exceptionally unique and talented musician and we don’t require a documentary to tell us this. Everyone has heard ‘Paper Planes’ and ‘Bad Girls’ and knows that they bang. The incredibly tacky, glittery, Y2K-style video for ‘XXO’ is still iconic eight years on. But the Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A. documentary is not a self-aggrandizing account of M.I.A.’s rise to stardom. It is instead a heavily political and deeply personal chronicling of M.I.A.’s experiences as a refugee and the activism that this experience has incited. This documentary asks it’s audience to grapple with issues as complex and emotional as genocide, immigration and identity. Following its premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the documentary has been met with a polarised reception. Whilst fans of M.I.A. applaud her experimental style and the integrity and courageousness of her biography, critics have been quick to dismiss the documentary as uninspired and lacking the rapper’s usual ‘verve’.
The documentary is mostly comprised of footage taken by M.I.A. herself — video diaries of the star as a teenager and young adult taken during tours with Elastica and studio sessions with Diplo. It is edited in a style that could be described as sporadic, collaged and nonlinear, with the older footage sometimes breaking so that the present-day M.I.A. can comment on the unfolding of events. The most intriguing home video footage comes from a 2001 trip to Sri Lanka which opens the artist’s eyes to the atrocity of the violence being enacted by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil people. M.I.A., being Tamil herself, fled this violence and came to the UK as a ten-year-old refugee. Her father’s position as a key figure within the Tamil resistance meant that her life in Sri Lanka was highly precarious. Living in the UK allowed her to discover her musical ability and experiment with her untapped artistic creativity. In her developmental years, she had no aspirations to become a rapper; her initial desire was to enter the film industry, hence the abundance of 90s and 2000s video footage in her personal archives. At Central Saint Martins she befriended filmmaker Steve Loveridge who would go on to direct Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A.
Since achieving celebrity status, M.I.A. has been continuously shrouded in controversy. The documentary seeks to demystify a few of her more contentious moments and absolve some of her mischievous behaviour. Notably, however, the documentary cherry-picks these moments, placing undue emphasis on some (e.g. her flipping off of the camera at the 2012 Superbowl) whilst entirely omitting others (her long-time support for Julian Assange, for instance). Though a controversial enough act to have her labelled a terrorist by people all over the globe, M.I.A.’s use of her platform to speak up for the Tamil people is both heartening and heart-wrenching. The documentary is successful in raising awareness for the recent Tamil genocide and positioning M.I.A. as a vocal detractor of the Sri Lankan government who did everything she could to get the world to pay attention to the plight of the Tamil people. It explores ways in which media outlets, such as the New York Times, have silenced and censored M.I.A.’s political activism, or have wrongly reduced her to a ‘champaign’ activist only interested in speaking on political issues in order to heighten her cultural relevance.
Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A. is important viewing for women of colour precisely because of this demonstration of this institutional racism directed at M.I.A. by the mainstream media. The misrepresentation of M.I.A. is an acute example of how women of colour are constantly pigeonholed into discrete categories which erase the multifaceted nature of their identities and experiences. How dare she think that she can be a pop star and a refugee?! In a world where people of colour are constantly flattened out, stereotyped and caricatured, M.I.A. is the square peg that we need. Her resistance against hegemonic media representations is an act of self-definition that women of colour can learn from and apply to their own lives. Love her or hate her, the Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A documentary demonstrates how the political significance of M.I.A. isn’t diminishing anytime soon.
Image courtesy of Dogwoof Films.