When the credits rolled as a home video of a pre-stardom M.I.A. is seen dancing alone, the audience at the Sundance Film Festival world premiere of MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. gave the documentary that’s been nearly a decade in the making a rousing ovation.
Amidst the applause, M.I.A. stood in front of the cheering audience looking confounded at what longtime friend Stephen Loveridge had created from the 700 hours of footage she gave to him nearly a decade ago. It was her first time seeing the documentary among strangers in Park City, Utah, and the Q&A with M.I.A. and Loveridge afterward was an uneasy exchange of glances and laughs between friends over the intimate film that captures the artist of Tamil origins at her most vulnerable.
“I’m still trying to process it all,” M.I.A. tells Billboard on a couch in the Grey Goose Lounge the day after the premiere. Her legs are crossed underneath her and you get the sense that, nearly 24 hours later, she’s not exactly sure what to make of Loveridge’s documentary that is less about M.I.A.’s artistry and more about the personal journey of Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam. As fantastic and insightful as the documentary is, M.I.A. clearly wasn’t ready for the curtain to be pulled back on her life in this manner.
“I mean, what’s left to tell?” she asks with a shrug. Suffice to say that this wasn’t what she planned to see when she took her seat at the theater. Instead, she expected Loveridge’s documentary to be more about the style and music that M.I.A. fans have come to love rather than the complex origins that helped birth the woman who often comes under fire for challenging the many isms of the world.
“He took all of my cool out,” she says with an uneasy laugh. “He took all the shows where I look good and tossed it in the bin. Eventually, if you squash all the music together from the film, it makes for about four minutes. I didn’t know that my music wouldn’t really be a part of this. I find that to be a little hard, because that is my life. It’s not the film that I would have made.”
Without admitting whether she loved or hated the film, M.I.A.’s initial reaction is that she has been left extraordinarily vulnerable. And she’s not quite sure how to feel about it.
Back in 2013, Loveridge leaked a five-minute trailer for the film that featured Kanye West, Jimmy Iovine and Diplo and swiftly buried the idea that the documentary would ever see the light of day. Five years later, the documentary has surfaced, but those scenes and characters that were in the trailer are nowhere to be found. Instead, we get an extraordinary 95-minute visual document that dives deep into the life of M.I.A., which begins well before she blew onto the scene in 2004 with “Galang.” The film captures an 11-year-old Sri Lankan immigrant who arrives in London and falls in love with hip-hop; her and her family’s interactions with her father, who founded the Tamil Tiger resistance, upon his arrival in London after years of silence; and her time spent with Justine Frischmann, frontwoman of the British band Elastica, and how their relationship shaped and molded her career.
There is footage of her audition at XL Records and a MacBook video of her and Diplo creating “Paper Planes,” but the performance pieces are few and far between. Instead, we get an extraordinary look at the complex origins of M.I.A. For someone who aims to be much more than a musician, Loveridge’s documentary does a wonderful job of giving the viewer a look at the passionate activist’s origins.
Although that activism has long been a central component of M.I.A.’s artistry, the 42-year-old says she would have preferred a film that was more along the lines of a stylized tour documentary (think the 1999 documentary on JAY-Z’s Hard Knock Life tour Backstage). But for Loveridge, that was impossible.
“I understand where she’s coming from, but nobody can do that [with the footage I had],” Loveridge tells Billboard, while admitting that another documentary strictly about her music would be a nice accompaniment piece to his film. “Whenever a celebrity makes a film about themselves, they are never going to have that objective distance from themselves. This was just the right kind of knowledge of her to make it truthful, but I have just enough objectivity to know when to put that shot in there. Maybe she won’t like how she looked or if she said the wrong thing, but I need it so an audience can understand to have compassion for the subject.”
Neither is necessarily wrong. MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. is far more gritty than a stylized tour documentary. Those who were expecting to see the madness of her performances will certainly be caught off guard by the weight of the narrative. Much of the 700 hours of footage that was compressed into the documentary consists of personal home videos that find M.I.A. interacting with her family (her grandmother provides a profound heartbeat to the film) and her crusade against global injustice. Watching her react to the 2010 New York Times article that framed her as “politically naive” or the moments before and after flipping the bird during her guest appearance with Madonna during the Super Bowl XLVI halftime show may not be art-house-worthy, from a technical standpoint, but they are compelling to witness as these are the experiences that feed into her artistry.
Loveridge admits that he had to pull himself out of his friendship with the Sri Lankan artist for months at a time in order to make this film because the immersion into her life was overwhelming.
“We’d go really long stretches, like six months, without talking to each other,” says Loveridge, who has known M.I.A. since their days at Central St. Martins art school in London. Each time, he’d inquire about more footage and shift the narrative based on what he saw. “The intensity of studying someone and watching footage from somewhere that I’ve been — I’ve lived that story, and watching it on film 15 years later while simultaneously keeping a friendship with M.I.A. was sometimes too much.”
M.I.A. says she was confused by Loveridge’s random disappearing acts and grew increasingly concerned that the footage could end up in the wrong hands.
“I was obviously worried because I was going through a lot with America, and I didn’t like the feeling of everyone having that kind of access and cutting a movie they wanted to cut,” she says. “I definitely felt like this was a sting job and they can get my footage and do whatever they want with it. Someone who really hates me could have access to that footage and cut a totally different movie.”
Throughout the duration of the conversation, M.I.A. can be seen visibly computing the film and its content. Although there is much to digest, Loveridge does manage to skirt around the tabloid fodder regarding her relationships with Diplo and Benjamin Bronfman and keep the film focused on M.I.A.’s challenges of balancing her stardom with her innate desire to challenge human-rights atrocities across the globe.
Once the film ends, it leaves the viewer wondering whether Mathangi Arulpragasam is misunderstood or if she’s actually understood but feared because of her influence.
“I think it’s both,” she says after pondering the question momentarily. “On one hand, because the journey is such an unusual story, it could easily be misunderstood. But when I watch the film, I see that my life is very compartmentalized. People never knew me in this particular light.”
She acknowledges that perhaps the message is bigger than her insecurities of having her life as the film’s focal point. And if her journey inspires others, it might be all worth it. But even still, there’s a lot to unpack in 90 minutes.
“This film is literally the first time that my family or friends are going to know certain things about me that they never knew,” she continues as she leans back on the plush couch and tilts her head back slightly as if she’s still processing her life on screen. “It’s unusual, so it can be misunderstood, but on the other hand, it is kind of empowering for people in the wrong sense, so they try to snub it out. If I’m going to be penalized whenever I say ‘stop killing people’ — if that is the worst thing that you can do as a human being and be scrutinized because I advocate peace — then I don’t mind being trampled, because you just have to believe in it.”
Loveridge is able to convey the message a little more clearly.
“I hope it’s really inspiring,” he says, with M.I.A. standing within earshot of our conversation. “It’s hard in terms of the journey and the message, but the way she did it was with whatever she had around her. She was brave enough to knock on the door of a record label with a homemade demo tape. To be that confident to knock on XL Recordings’ door and say ‘I’m that thing you need’ is the inspiration I want people to get.”
Whether we know it or not, maybe M.I.A. is that thing we’ve needed all along.