An incisive and intimate look at international Sri Lankan star M.I.A., whose political activism and music-making have impacted popular culture.
Dir. Steve Loveridge
2018 | UK | Documentary/Biography/Music | 96 mins | English
NC16 (censored) for violence
Plot: Drawn from a never-before-seen cache of personal footage spanning decades, this is an intimate portrait of the Sri Lankan artist and musician who continues to shatter conventions.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize – World Cinema Documentary (Sundance)
International Sales: Dogwoof
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed at the Singapore Writers Festival)
A winner of the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Mantagi/Maya/M.I.A is an incisive and intimate look at international Sri Lankan star M.I.A., whose rapping and popular work in hip-hop has earned her millions of devoted fans from around the globe. That kind of music is not my cup of tea, but her name is a familiar one—I first heard of her when she collaborated with A.R. Rahman for the Oscar-nominated original song “O Saya” in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Another of M.I.A’s songs, “Paper Planes”, also found its way into the soundtrack and I found it to be interesting in its experimentation with rhythm and melody. A decade later, hearing it again in Steve Loveridge’s documentary, I realised what I missed out—the lyrics and its political subtext. Perhaps subtext isn’t the most accurate word to describe the songs of M.I.A., whom as I learnt from the documentary, is as serious about her music-making as she is about political activism.
Loveridge’s work charts her life story from early childhood in Sri Lanka and fleeing to the UK as the civil war grew worse. I remembered studying in social studies back in my secondary school days about the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the infamous Tamil Tigers, so it was interesting for me to hear from M.I.A’s point-of-view of the conflict (her father was a key figure in the Tamil Tigers). Her strong political views, and sometimes controversial music videos and live performances continue to characterise her as a celebrity who is not afraid of using her voice and soft power to speak out for the disenfranchised.
She had been trained in filmmaking back when she was a student (that probably explains why she has so much home video footage), and Loveridge was actually her classmate. With unsurprising access to her full array of audiovisual materials, Loveridge’s work may sometimes feel overly-reliant on them, though they allow us a never-before-seen glimpse of a famous celebrity’s early years, thus humanising the person in the process. Matangi will surely excite fans of M.I.A., but it is her passion in making a difference to people’s lives and trying to right sociopolitical wrongs that leaves me with an indelible impression.