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A different pop star portrait

Matangi / Maya / MIA
Regissør: Stephen Loveridge

"Why are you a problematic pop star?" Asks director Stephen Loveridge in the documentary about MIA The answers point far beyond the artist's uncompromising and sometimes challenging personality.


Matangi / Maya / MIA. is not a typical music documentary. Appropriately enough, MIA is also quite a different pop star. From the debut record Arular (2005) MIA has distinguished itself as a distinctive and innovative artist, which uses elements from hip hop, dancehall, electro, punk and world music. And with her aversion to following the recipe for how pop artists should behave, such as when she showed her finger during an appearance on the American Super Bowl show or launched a music video in which red-haired, young boys are executed, she has been called an "anti- popstar ".

Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam was born in London in 1975, but moved with her family back to her parents' country of origin Sri Lanka when she was six months old. At age eleven, she returned to London with her mother and siblings because they were no longer safe in the civil war-ravaged country. During her childhood, she had little contact with her father, who founded the Tamil resistance movement Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS). The organization later formed ties with the more well-known separatist organization Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

Whether Matangi / Maya / MIA is a music-documentaries can also be discussed; When she first saw the movie, MIA stated that she was surprised that it was no longer about her music. Director Stephen Loveridge – who has been a close friend of MIA ever since they both studied film in London in the nineties – has reportedly been given free rein by the artist while working on the documentary. But the road to finished film has been long and challenging: In 2013, he stated that he "would rather die" than continue working on the documentary, which at the time was intended to become a more traditional artist portrait, with interviews with various well-known collaborators. Today, both the artist and the director are doing well in connection with the launch of the film, which has become something other than the record label and management originally envisioned.

Artist's own recording

The peculiarity of the film is largely due to the fact that the main character – who himself had a desire to become a documentary filmmaker – has made a lot of footage from his own life over the years. Loveridge reportedly had access to more than 700 hours of such material, and selected pieces of this make up a significant portion of the film.

Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam appears in MATANGI / MAYA / MIA by Steve Loveridge, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Steve Loveridge.

Through these footage, the film depicts, among other things, when young Maya returned to Sri Lanka, to better understand her background. At this time she had been part of the environment around the British pop band Elastica, which was fronted by her friend Justine Frischmann. However, she did not quite find her place there, and still had an ambition to make documentaries. Despite the film hinting that she might not be fully prepared for the task, in an enjoyable sequence where Frischmann runs after Maya, on her way to the plane to Sri Lanka, to give her the camera she forgot.

The material she filmed in the country of origin is just as well-suited to tell about this important chapter of Maya's life, where she gains a broader understanding of her cultural hyphen identity – which would eventually characterize both her lyrics and musical expressions. Speaking enough, her first two albums, Arular og Kala, named after her parents, and the two following her; her English and Tamil names respectively.

Not least, MIA has used its position as the only international pop star with a Tamil background to talk about the political situation in Sri Lanka. This has not necessarily been easy, all the while music journalists like to talk about quite different things than genocide. In the film, for example, we see American talk show host Bill Maher patronizingly shift the focus to her London accent – presumably also to cast doubt on her authenticity in relation to the conflict she wants to discuss. Likewise, a New York Times portrait interview made a sarcastic point of the MIA eating truffle-fried potatoes while talking about the mass killings in Sri Lanka, without mentioning that it was the journalist himself who had ordered this dish.

Cultural representation

It's easy to ridicule the political involvement of rich, famous and presumptively superficial pop stars (read: Bono). In a time when artists almost have to line up in interviews to "talk about the difficult time" during the launch of a new record release, it is also worthwhile to problematize the use of personal background for marketing purposes. In one of the footage in the film, M.IA. then also that his father gave them "an interesting background" after one of the siblings made a critical remark about him. In Sri Lanka, for his part, it is pointed out by a relative that in his eyes the British girl does not share their war zone experiences.

The MIA has received a lot of criticism for supporting alleged terrorists, and not all Tamils ​​are comfortable with the artist as spokesperson for their case. But that does not necessarily mean that her commitment is not genuinely – or for that matter timely.

Matangi / Maya / MIA has not, according to the artist, become the movie she herself would have made, without making it less interesting. It draws an energetic and different portrait of the person more than of her music, and does not put her exclusively in a positive light. At the same time, it poses some thought-provoking questions about cultural representation, and who can claim to face inflamed political issues.

I would also like to see a new film signed by the artist myself. But Matangi / Maya / MIA feels as full as a fitting and deserved documentary for a fascinating, unconventional, and in many eyes problematic artist.

Matangi / Maya / MIA has Norwegian cinema premiere 16. November, and premieres during the Film from the South Festival in Oslo.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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