Almost up close with M.I.A.

Matangi/ Maya/M.I.A. shows M.I.A. to be an activist who brings attention to war crimes in Sri Lanka and the plight of refugees around the world.
Matangi/ Maya/M.I.A. shows M.I.A. to be an activist who brings attention to war crimes in Sri Lanka and the plight of refugees around the world.PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES

Matangi/Maya/ M.I.A. traces M.I.A.'s rise from a refugee to a musician and an activist, but little is said of her personal life

REVIEW / DOCUMENTARY

MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (NC16)

95 minutes/Opens on Saturday / 3.5 stars

The story: This biography of British-Sri Lankan singer, rapper and songwriter Matangi Arulpragasam - also spelt Mathangi elsewhere and who uses the stage name M.I.A. - features new and archive footage to tell the life story of the artist who, as a girl, went to England with her refugee family fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. It follows her rise as a musician unwilling to change her image or hide her controversial politics for the sake of her career.

"One day, in Sri Lanka, I was shot at for being a Tamil. And when I came to England, I was spat on for being a Paki," narrates singer-songwriter M.I.A. a quarter of the way into this filmed diary of her life from childhood to present day.

Authorised biographies of celebrities are rarely interesting. They are thinly disguised promotional tools, made to sell albums or tours.

But when the star is M.I.A., a woman whose career and reputation are built on a raw, sometimes abrasive, authenticity, a filmed account of her life cannot help but be fascinating.

The film tracks her musical growth as well as her becoming aware of how she has to reconcile two ideas. She is oppressed, as a woman and a refugee, but she is also privileged: She found safety when many in her family remained in a war zone.

In the film directed by Steve Loveridge, an old friend from art school, the 43-year-old comes across as an earnest woman committed to her causes, with no interest in playing with her public image, unlike, say, Madonna.

Nor is she like Lady Gaga, who in her recent documentary is shown to be shadowed by a crew of assistants and consultants.

If M.I.A. needs a shoulder to cry on when the pressures of show business get too much, it is never shown.

Instead, there is a strong focus on her activism. She brings attention to war crimes in Sri Lanka, with gory footage to support her claims, and the plight of refugees around the world.

Outside of scenes about her relatives in England and Sri Lanka, little about her personal life is revealed. The film shows her becoming a mother, but almost nothing is said about the child's father, musician Benjamin Bronfman, a scion of the wealthy clan linked to the Seagram's drinks empire.

This contradiction - an activist for social justice with a blue-blooded partner - is sadly never explored. Also skimmed over is the 2012 Super Bowl scandal caused by her flipping off the crowd during a half-time performance, leading to a lawsuit.

She says on tape that her action was motivated by politics and Loveridge leaves it at that.

What a shame. Digging into that impulsive act of self-sabotage would have yielded a deeper, better film.

• Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is screening exclusively at The Projector, Level 5 Golden Mile Tower, 6001 Beach Road.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2018, with the headline 'Almost up close with M.I.A.'. Print Edition | Subscribe