‘Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.’ Review: An Arrestingly Personal and Conflicted Portrait of a 21st Century Revolutionary

From the moment it first screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the story around “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” is that its namesake — the iconoclastic English-Sri Lankan musician and general force of nature — is unhappy with the documentary that longtime friend Steve Loveridge has made about her. This critic was at that premiere, and remembers spending most of the supremely awkward Q&A that followed staring at the floor and praying for the sweet release of death. “He took all my cool out,” Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam said to the audience after bemoaning the film’s length (it runs a brisk 95 minutes, but watching yourself on a screen for even a few seconds can feel like an eternity). “It’s not the film that I would have made.”

Well, yeah. As even Arulpragasam seemed to understand, that’s kind of the whole idea. Once an aspiring documentarian herself, she knew — when she gave Loveridge a 700-hour cache of home video footage in 2011 — that he would use it to cobble together an honest, subjective, and occasionally unflattering portrait. She knew that the soft-spoken white guy she met at a London art school wasn’t going to make either a hagiography or a hit job, and that placing her story in somebody else’s hands might afford the film with the same degree of unflinching honesty that has always defined her music.

And that’s exactly what Loveridge has made. A lucid crystallization of both Arulpragasam’s private life and her public mission, “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” offers an intimate profile of a righteously modern renegade without ever feeling like propaganda or a plea to stream her latest album on Spotify. It is, despite Arulpragasam’s objections, also quite flattering to its subject, a very impressive human being — and natural-born shit-stirrer — whom the media has seldom afforded the respect she deserves (Loveridge uses Lynn Hirschberg’s infamous hatchet job of a profile and Bill Maher’s patronizing “Real Time” interview as clear examples of that dismissal).

Re-reading what Arulpragasam had to say at that Sundance premiere, especially about how she imagined the documentary would have a greater focus on her music, it’s almost as if she had seen a different film altogether; Loveridge plays all the hits (“Bad Girls,” “Galang,” etc.), unpacks some of M.I.A.’s most controversial videos (“Born Free,” “Borders”),  and even squeezes in some never-before-seen footage of Arulpragasam creating the beat for “Paper Planes” with her then-boyfriend Diplo. In a way, the highest compliment that can be paid to “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” is that it negates Arulpragasam’s complaints while also clearly explaining why she has them.

Time and again, we see how Arulpragasam can’t afford to grow complacent. After getting in a world of trouble for flashing a middle finger at the cameras during the Super Bowl Halftime Show — an incident that leads to a hilarious scene in which she literally runs away from the NFL suits who want to shout at her — the musician rationalizes why America got so mad at her: “A brown person who is standing up there and not sucking dick is more offensive than murdering someone.” Considering that she’s an immigrant, a woman, a person of color, and “the only Tamil in Western media” (her words), it’s damningly easy to appreciate why she has to be angry to be visible, and why she has to be visible in order to effect change and/or represent a rallying cry for other marginalized people.

That inquiry might have been even more interesting if Loveridge hadn’t been too gentle to explore the relationship between Arulpragasam’s growing riches, and her diminishing relevance. But the director is more curious about his subject’s formative years, and her family, and the impact from her dad’s foundational involvement with a group of Sri Lankan militants called the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (later rebranded as the Tamil Tigers). Nothing about Loveridge’s approach is particularly novel or exciting, but the fact that so much of his footage was recorded first-hand, by his subject, endows the film with an immediacy that elevates it well above the average bio-doc.

It also filters everything we see through the lens of Arulpragasam’s self-mythology, occasionally suggesting that performing the part of a revolutionary is as important to her as the revolution itself. She can’t even reflect on a music video she directed in the ’90s without positioning it as some kind of radical act (“it was the first indie music video with some dancing in it,” she says). At the same time, Arulpragasam is a radical, and an effective one at that. Somehow, despite being silenced from every direction, she’s managed to get out there and spread her message. She performed at the VMAs in her third trimester, she forced HBO to shine a light on the situation in Sri Lanka, and she wrote some of the best and most ferocious popular music of the early 21st century along the way. In her words, she’s expressed the shit that she’s needed to express. That can’t have been easy. And so, in the end, it makes sense that she’d be uncomfortable watching someone else express that shit for her. It makes sense that she’d be even more uncomfortable if they did it well.

Grade: B+

Cinereach will open “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” in theaters on Friday, September 28.

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