Matangi/Maya/MIA doesn’t follow the typical music documentary formula, but Maya Arulpragasam (MIA) is not your typical popstar. The daughter of a Tamil rebel leader in the Sri Lankan Civil War, Maya moved to England when she was nine years old as a refugee. Growing up in the UK, she struggled balancing her identities as a Sri Lankan and as a British citizen.
Frustrated by the way British society viewed immigrants, she studied to become a filmmaker and recorded her own story. Footage from her time at school, drunk conversations with her siblings, and interviews with her family in Sri Lanka create an image of the person behind the rap persona and the causes that motivate her.
The movie doesn’t focus on MIA’s commercial success; her Grammys are maybe mentioned once. Instead, it focuses on why she makes music at all. In 2009, when “Paper Planes” was at the top of the charts, the Sri Lankan Civil War escalated into a genocide against Tamils. As the only Tamil in Western pop culture, she felt she needed to speak out but that she wasn’t being taken seriously. Instead of giving in to the pressure to conform, she became more aggressive, calling out media outlets for misrepresenting her and ignoring the war. She created radically political music and videos that offended seemingly everyone. The way the movie is framed, using her own footage and relying on interviews with Maya, allows her to tell her own story and gives her a new platform to say what she wants without worrying about being cut off or edited out.
Matangi/Maya/MIA seems made by and for MIA fans, so it doesn’t question her role as an activist too harshly; however, it does bring up some of her critics’ points. Even years earlier, while she was interviewing her family in Sri Lanka, a relative told her she could not understand the struggle because she left before the worst violence started. In archival clips, Sri Lankan authorities and scandalized news anchors suggest she should stick to what she’s good at—singing—and stay out of politics. They claim she was disrespectful at best and possibly a terrorist at worst. Maya does not claim to be the perfect advocate for the Sri Lankan people, but she knows she has a voice and an audience. She feels an obligation to use her music to reach people and stop atrocities.
If you wanted a movie breaking down MIA’s music song by song, this definitely isn’t the movie for you. It does much more. It’s clear that Maya always had a clear vision about the story she wanted to tell and her success doesn’t change that. This documentary lets her talk about the things that matter—the ones that she’s been saying for almost two decades.
Movie Review By: Margo Broderick