You must have wondered – at least once – what your life might look like were it turned into a documentary. What scenes would make the cut, how the narrative arc would be formed, which parts of your identity would be focussed on and blown up? I’ve thought about whether I’d be portrayed as empathetic or kind. Maybe they’d include a photograph of me wearing blue eyeshadow, mid-laugh, and a talking head would say I was “very charming.” Or perhaps they’d show me at my worse: covered in snot and screaming in the doctor’s surgery. There’d be video footage of me sobbing into some super noodles at 3AM, the talking heads repeating toxic things I’ve said that I can’t take back. What I mean is: who among us can say we're totally well-adjusted or maladjusted? Woke or problematic? Or does it just depend on timing and angles?
This is something I found myself thinking about when watching Steve Loveridge's new M.I.A. documentary, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., out last week. M.I.A., perhaps more than any other British artist, is somebody who occupies various personas, none of which can be neatly folded into one thing. To some, she’s outspoken without nuance; a person who will impulsively tweet the phone number of a journalist who criticised her, or clumsily pit Muslims and African Americans against each other despite borrowing heavily from the latter’s culture. To others she’s a renegade; someone who flips off a camera at the Super Bowl and spits into a mic on stage while pregnant. She speaks out against the refugee crisis when no one else will. Her music is fierce and forward-thinking and completely full of life. Perhaps she is all of these things, or maybe she’s none of them – they’re her past selves, and all that exists now is the present.
Compiled of endless, brilliantly intimate handheld (and often self-shot) footage from M.I.A.’s childhood up until the present day, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. somehow manages to piece all of these facets together in a way that doesn’t try to make them anything else. You see her as a kid, dancing to Madonna in a cramped flat after flying to London from Sri Lanka. You see her as an art student, making beats in her room with whatever equipment she could afford and spray painting graphics onto paper. You see her ascent into a global pop star, performing on TV, walking red carpets, making albums. And you see her return to Sri Lanka, meeting her family who still live under the shadow of the civil war, doubly so because her father founded the Tamil Tigers. She grapples with all these things at once, and in watching the documentary, you find yourself grappling alongside her.
“The reason it’s called ‘MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.’ is because they’re the three names she’s had in her journey,” says Loveridge, who met M.I.A. while they were both at art school, at Central Saint Martins. “It’s about being all of those things simultaneously. The film has a non-linear structure because I wanted to show how the little girl from Sri Lanka is still the woman on stage at the Grammys with Kanye and Jay-Z.” The reason this was important, he explains, is because people and their lives are messy and complex and full of contradictions. “It’s important to stand up for real nuance,” he adds. “You can’t brand people as a single, solitary authentic identity. Lots of people don’t have that privilege in their lives – they’re a mixed up, cut-n-paste, patchwork, bit of this, bit of that – and I think those people are fantastic.”
Acknowledging the personas that exist in everybody is important – we’re full of light and shade, of old and new selves. But it’s particularly pertinent when speaking about the immigrant experience because those who are seen as ‘other’ often end up being tugged in various directions. “For Maya, she’s experienced life in Sri Lanka, and she’s learnt how to be a pop star,” Loveridge says. “Some people view that as diminishing her authenticity. Like, 'you’re not a proper Tamil anymore because you didn’t live there for 20 years', 'you can’t speak about those things because you live in Beverly Hills and eat truffle fries', 'you’re not really a punk because what do you know about the Clash?' All the way through. But there’s a risk in pushing displaced people and immigrants down a gap where they get lost as being ‘non people’ and lose their identity because they’re not 100 percent anything. But Maya’s not ashamed of her identity; she’s proud of her it.”
MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. doesn’t attempt to cram M.I.A. into a box, or justify her as a person – it’s a lot warmer and smarter than that. Instead, you get a longform portrait of somebody who has lived a life of many colours, and is still living it. You see the pain and violence of the Sri Lankan conflict. You hear the pure energy and rawness of her music. You see southeast London estates, Hollywood, motherhood, and you see a musician who never disappeared, but instead got louder and louder, even when it made other people uncomfortable – especially when.
“This documentary wasn’t a chance to try and win over haters,” Steve adds. “That was never the point. It’s just really nice to see a positive story to do with immigrants – that also deals with the complications and difficulties – up there on screen next to all the other documentaries, and feel like Maya did that. There’s a story out there, and it’s because of her.”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.