One of the most telling insights in Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., Stephen Loveridge’s documentary about the fiercely outspoken Sri Lankan-British rapper known as M.I.A., is that she herself was an aspiring documentarian before she became a popstar. Loveridge met M.I.A. (whose real name is Maya Arulpragasam) while they were both studying nonfiction filmmaking at a London-based fine arts school, where her passion project was a documentary about the violent circumstances of her early life. She was born in London to a father who soon abandoned the family to lead a militant Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka; during her formative years, Maya, her mother, and her siblings moved between India and her native country in constant fear of being persecuted by the Sri Lankan government, until they fled back to London as refugees when she was ten. In her twenties, she returned to Sri Lanka with a camera, and filmed two months worth of footage about the plight of the Tamils during the Civil War.
These videos never made their way into a film, because a few years and short-lived careers later, Maya became a globally successful rapper with the cult single “Paper Planes,” and would go on to be nominated for both a Grammy and an Oscar in 2009. But her documentarian impulse to shed light on the issues of her homeland never left, thoroughly permeating her music, her art, and her public image. But making a hard-hitting and personal documentary about ethnic conflict and state-led persecution is one thing; making peppy, chart-friendly music that bluntly critiques governments’ attitudes towards immigration and refugees, seemingly sympathizes with armed resistance, and features bloody, hard-to-digest images of war—especially as the rare South Asian popstar in the West—is another. M.I.A has been bound up in controversies, legal hassles and wild accusations (including being called a terrorist) ever since she tasted the first vestiges of fame. Although she has remained as dogged as ever about her politics, she decided in 2011 to hand over all her old tapes to her friend Steve, asking him to make something about her album.
“My fight was so different by then,” she said to me right before the New Directors/New Films premiere of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. at the Museum of Modern Art. “I was dealing with the realities of what it’s like to be the only artist that’s speaking about that stuff and getting a huge backlash for it. Like in 2010, when I did a show here, on Governor’s Island, they literally said I was cursed, because things were working against me so much.” She wanted people to understand what it takes to fight for a cause without the comfort of solidarity. “Activism is not just a season, and it’s not just to sell shoes… it’s real shit. And it comes at a price, especially for people from cultures that are not easy to digest.”
Enter Loveridge, who took her tapes and, as the phrase goes, ran with it. Over a tortuous production process spread over the last six years, he dug up more and more footage and stitched it together into a captivating documentary that’s only marginally about M.I.A’s music. In many ways, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is a biography by way of autobiography, with Loveridge mostly curating and arranging the sometimes diary-like home videos M.I.A. shot of herself over the years. This inside-out perspective imbues the film with a fascinating mix of up-close candor and (somewhat) objective distance. Loveridge offers a portrait that’s both laser-focused and expansive, charting Maya’s personal trajectory with the affectionate familiarity of a friend, but gently foregrounding the larger, more universal themes of displacement, race, and celebrity that have been central to her public as well as private persona. Videos from the time she spent in Sri Lanka in 2001 form the throughline of the film, constantly intercutting its otherwise chronological progression. The resulting refugee-to-rapstar narrative feels so timely that the many delays in production seem almost serendipitous.
I spoke to Stephen Loveridge over phone about Matangi/Maya/M.I.A’s rough journey from inception to completion, the challenges of being both friend and filmmaker, and the politics of making art about a political artist.
I know that this film had a very long and troubled gestation period, and you even said at one point that you’d rather “die than complete it.” Could you talk a little bit about why you decided to make the film and what the process of putting it together was like?
I went into it kind of blind. I had done a degree in film, but that was quite a few years ago, and since then I’d worked in 3D and animation and all sorts of things. I’d done a lot of work with Maya as well through the years, like collaborating on her different albums as a graphic designer. When we were in film school, I knew she had these tapes stuffed away in her mum’s attic in London, and around 2012, it just seemed like it was the right time to make a documentary. Maya had a large backlog of work by then and was further along in her career, so a career retrospective was how we first kicked around the idea, like a traditional music doc. And it was originally going to be funded by her record label and her management.
But even then, in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to do something quite different from a traditional music doc. Because I had a feeling that these tapes had the guts of the early years of Maya and her discoveries before she became a musician. But you know, Interscope and Roc Nation and these big managers have a kind of prescribed way of making a music documentary. You write down a list of celebrities, film interviews with all of them, do the talking heads thing, cut the footage in between, and, boom, you’ve got a music doc. But I was like, no. I want to make a film, an art-house documentary that goes out into documentary world, because I think of her story as a kind of socio-political document, as well as a really amazing biography of someone who’s been on a much wider journey than just the fame trajectory.
That was what I wanted to do and we [the record label and I] never really saw eye to eye, and eventually, it just ground to a halt. They stopped funding it and nobody knew what was happening, so that’s when I chucked a bit of a fit and I put out a little test teaser, a kind of trailer thing that we’d made just to test opinion for the documentary and have some practice in editing. And that went viral. It went everywhere. That’s how Cinereach, the company in New York that ended up becoming the funders and producers, saw it and they got in contact with me and said: Oh we hear you’re having a few difficulties getting your documentary off the ground, can we help? We’re a not-for-profit, we’re into telling stories, and we feel much more aligned with the film that you say that you’re trying to make. So that’s why it took a while, because finding the right team and the right investment was the key to having the freedom to make mistakes and try different things as a first-time filmmaker.
It’s apparent from the film that Maya has always been really concerned with shaping her own image and being the author of her own story. It seems like she was using these home videos to record a sort of autobiography long before she became famous. What was it was like for you to take these little bits of autobiography and turn them into your biography of her?
It was interesting because Maya’s memory of what she filmed, and why she filmed it, was that she was never in front of the camera. She had made half a documentary about this band called Elastica, before she’d ever considered doing music herself. Then she made another documentary about her family in Sri Lanka, trying to investigate what had happened to her cousins who had stayed behind after she left. So she said to me, I get that you want these tapes, but I’m not in them. But it turned out that she was in them. She regularly turned the camera around and did little bits of video diary to try and segue between events and give explanations. And I felt like she had unknowingly left a lot of evidence of her own journey and discoveries and personality in there. It wasn’t like she was filming an autobiographical documentary or personal video diaries about herself every day; I’ve gone through the footage and selected those bits that focus on Maya’s own personality and discoveries more than the subjects that she was pointing the camera at. I’ve taken all the bits where she’s pointing the camera back at herself to piece together a portrait of her at that time. She was actually really surprised when she saw it. She was like, oh my god, you’re taking all the wrong bits. All the bits that I would have left on the cutting room floor, you’ve sewn together to make a film.
I watched a video of the Q&A you both did after the film’s premiere at Sundance. She seemed like she was sort of processing the film in real time and trying to come to terms with it.
Yeah, that was nerve-wracking! She obviously knew the tapes she had given me and had a vague idea of the kind of film I was making. But when she saw it all put together, and particularly on a cinema screen with an audience, she was genuinely shocked. It took her some time. She went from “I hate it” the first time she saw it to “it’s amazing “ within about three screenings.
With documentaries, there’s always this burdensome responsibility on the filmmaker to represent “reality,” even if that’s not your explicit intention. There’s a kind of claim to objective truth. How does that work when you are presenting the truth about a close friend, who’s also a famous pop star, who is also quite possessive about her image and the message she wants to get across to the public?
I think throughout the making of this film, the big challenge has been trust. Especially when so many other similar documentaries fail at that element. Like I would keep hearing scare stories about the Amy Winehouse documentary, how the family hates the filmmaker and they’re all suing each other, or how Russell Brand didn’t turn up to his own documentary, and I would worry, is that going to happen to us? But I think there was always an unspoken agreement between me and Maya that I would never push it to the extent that she and her family would feel like I had made them uncomfortable or misrepresented them. I would never push it to a gossipy level.
At the same time, I had to be really strict with Maya and say to her, you are not allowed in the edit suite. This cannot be a film that you’re making about yourself. I need that freedom to be objective, but with the compassion that comes with being a friend. I need to be able to choose what I’m choosing without you breathing down my neck and looking over my shoulder going, don’t use that shot because I look bad, or I don’t like what I’m saying now, or you’ve made me look foolish. And overall, I think the documentary is sympathetic towards Maya, but it is quite “warts and all.” A few of the reviews have said: I don’t like her. She’s quite unlikable. Or that fans might come out of this liking her even less. M.I.A. in the media does come off as very conscious of the image she wants to project, as you said, and I think people are surprised that the documentary is as open as it is and has moments of her being vulnerable, and young, and naive. I think that’s quite refreshing.
Going off of that, M.I.A. has often been lauded for focusing her image and her art so explicitly on the Sri Lankan Civil War and the plight of the Tamil people. But she has also sometimes been criticized for supposedly co-opting a narrative that isn’t entirely hers or for dissonances between her life and the causes she cares about. I was really struck by that moment in the film, that one video from her time in Sri Lanka, where her cousin is making a similar accusation and saying: You don’t have any real war zone experience, because you were here only for a few years and then you left. Was that a deliberate decision, to open up that critique within the film?
Yeah, that is something that was really, really important to me to talk about within the film… although I do want to be very conscious about the fact that it’s not my conversation to have, and I wasn’t ever trying to put words in Maya’s mouth or speak on her behalf. I saw my job very much as curating the footage that existed into a coherent story arc that picked up a particular theme.
But being her friend and watching the kind of difficulties she’s had in the media, being accused of being in-between and appropriating stories… I felt like it was important to depict the identity she has of being a displaced person caught between two cultures. Of not being British enough to be able to sample The Clash or talk about punk music or hang out with Elastica. But then what never occurred to me until I really got to know Maya was the idea that that also comes from the Tamil side of her identity. Like her cousin saying, you’re not a proper Tamil because you left when you were ten. So you can’t speak for us. It’s this situation where you’re not this or that, and so you end up being nothing. And something that I think she did very successfully, but also struggled with sometimes, was carving out this identity and saying, no, this is the honest thing I am. I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a mixture of these environments that I’ve lived in and the life experiences that I’ve had. So the cousin who’s saying to her that she didn’t have war zone experience, well, he didn’t have the same experience that Maya did. He didn’t have to get on a plane and flee to London.
And none of us can really understand what it must be like for displaced people, but there’s so many of them, and it’s absent in conversations and discussions about identity politics. You know, 65 million people got displaced in the recent refugee crisis, and all of them are going through this similar experience of moving cultures. It’s a modern condition, and I think it’s a shame that more people don’t get to make work about it, and nail it down as a concrete identity where you’re not apologizing for not being enough of one thing or another.
For a lot of people this documentary might be their most thorough introduction yet to the Sri Lankan Civil War and the politics of that part of the world. Did you feel that responsibility when you were making the documentary? Did you feel like you were not just making a film about your popstar friend, but also telling the story of this island and its political history?
No, not really. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t alienate the audience by giving them something that was a history lesson, with facts and figures. The Sri Lankan conflict is outlined in the film, but in a way that’s easy to understand. Which is why it’s quite simplistic… it’s not inaccurate, but it doesn’t go into very much detail. And that’s for two reasons. One, because I’m looking for an audience who may have never heard of the Sri Lankan Civil War and can find her relatable. I didn’t want to push those people away by making it seem like a really heavy political documentary. Secondly, I think Maya’s experience is unique in some ways, but also, as I was saying, there are so many displaced people, and they rarely get talked about as a real solid identity. I was very conscious about not making the film just about Tamils and Sri Lanka. By the time we get to the end of the film, where Maya’s talking about making her Borders music video, which features refugees in boats… they could be from anywhere. I think it’s important that she’s drawing a ring around those people based on their experiences and political status rather than their ethnicity.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you didn’t want to push people away by making it heavy and political, because you do include some very graphic footage of torture and executions from the Sri Lankan War. Were you concerned that that might alienate people?
By alienated, I didn’t mean offended or shocked. I just meant like, when you’re barraged with statistics and facts sometimes, it’s difficult to understand or digest for some people, including myself. But what I was very conscious about with using the violent imagery was being respectful and using it in a context where I felt it was justified and necessary and relevant to my story. And I didn’t just pull them at random to spice up the film or for shock value. The images of violence in the film are almost exclusively things that Maya has used in some way herself in her artwork or talked about.
There’s this one very brutal sequence in the film of an execution that happened in Sri Lanka, where unarmed men were bound and blindfolded and shot in extrajudicial killings. That became a really key piece of evidence in the attempt to try the Sri Lankan government for war crimes. That was something Maya really focused on when the Wikileaks cables came out and there was evidence that the international community was aware that there were war crimes happening, and were ineffectual in doing anything about it. She then made songs about that. She made a whole mix called Wikileaks, and she also made this video with ginger kids called Born Free, which was a kind of visual analogy to the situation in Sri Lanka. It had redheads being rounded up and summarily executed. And that got banned and was shocking and controversial, but as she says in the film, Maya had already tweeted a real video of real men being killed, and nobody cared because of their ethnicity. She’s always been somebody that wants to talk about what you are and aren’t allowed to say in the Western media. There’s a point in the film where I’m interviewing her, and she says, “How are you supposed to talk about the struggle without talking about the fucking struggle?” She comes from a place of violence, her family was displaced by violence, so she wants to talk about that in her chosen medium.
I was also fascinated by the relationship between voiceover and image in the film. Maya’s narration, if you can call it that, so perfectly illustrates the visuals that I thought that you had recorded it after putting together the film. But that’s not the case, right?
Yes, that’s not the case. The voiceover is a mix of some filmed interviews that I did between 2012 and 2014, when I was still planning to make a more interview-based film, where Maya would basically go through all her boxes, her gubbins of old merchandise, family photo albums, and paraphernalia, and just sort of hold it up to the camera and talk about it.
That was my idea, but it was too difficult to get her to actually sit down in one chair and do a consistent interview. She was always so busy, we just could never quite get it together to do the same shot two days running, and so it would be like starting a different film every week. Eventually we decided to do just audio interviews, and we took her into a studio, and recorded it over three or four days. We just talked through everything in chronological order, from when and where she was born, to what her mom and dad did, all the way through to what happened last week. It took four days. And because I’ve been around her for the last 20 years, I was able to really scrutinize some of the events and go, that’s not the way I remember it, let’s go over that again.
That was what we used, but I wanted to be really sparing with the voiceover because I think that’s the tipping point between the film being objective and me starting to steer people’s opinions. So I tried to make sure that her voiceover wasn’t didactic.
Can you talk about the process of actually matching the video to the voiceover? Did you first assemble the shots and then apply the voiceover to it?
I worked with some very talented editors, so it was a team effort. But originally, I made an edit of the audio stuff, selecting some choice bits of audio, and then did the same with the video scenes. And some of them naturally synced and fell in together, but there was a quite a lot of change going on. The filmmaking was very fluid. We didn’t have a really tight structure or storyboard. The decision to do the nonlinear thing, for example, where we keep returning to Maya with her family in Sri Lanka in 2001, even though the underlying chronology of the film moves on… that came quite late in the day and was quite a nice obstacle to get through. The thing I liked about it was that if you have a film where someone goes from being naive, young, and poor to being rich, famous, and successful, it can feel like you know where you’re going halfway through the film. You know where this is going to end up—either they die or overdose at the end, or they carry on or whatever. So to be able to skip back to Maya when she’s in a period of self-discovery, and more doubtful and innocent about who she’s going to be, it kept this sense of openness and wonder to the film right through to the end. It wasn’t like being lectured by someone who had made it.
There’s a couple moments in the film that are very stylized. There’s the abstract opening scene, in which you distort her image into this green swirl of lights, and then in the middle of the film, there’s an animated montage when you’re talking about the production of [the song] Galang. Why did you limit the stylization to just those bits? The rest of the film is a pretty straightforward edit of found footage.
It was really important to me that this wasn’t a fashion movie. Because that’s a big part of M.I.A.’s music career and fanbase. She started off as an indie music star before Paper Planes happened. She was always in Pitchfork, and Dazed and Confused, and The Fader, and was touring around schools and music festivals like Coachella, where the other artists would be Santigold, LCD Soundsystem, Bloc Party. A lot of her fans were very fashion-conscious and stylish, and sometimes that world can be rather disposable and obsessed with image-making and personal branding. I wanted to be clear that this film wasn’t about that. It wasn’t an attempt to put M.I.A. back on magazine covers. And there’s also a certain way that they photograph people of other cultures that I wanted to avoid, that kind of VICE Magazine mentality, where it’s a bit fetishized. Do you know what I mean? It can come off as really hipstery. I wanted to make sure that the film was sincere, and that was partly what Maya was so shocked about at Sundance. That I had managed to make a film about M.I.A. so unstylish and uncool. And I was like, well, that is my style.
When I was making the film, people kept showing me the Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck documentary that makes all of his sketchbooks come to life, and saying, wow you could do that with Maya and her art and graphics, etc. But I also didn’t want audiences feeling cynical about the motives behind the film, like oh, you’re just trying to make her look cool and sell records and promote an album, and you don’t really care about her grandma in Sri Lanka. Because that’s something that’s haunted M.I.A.’s career as well. That she’s fake, and she’s just saying all of this stuff because it’s cool and the kids at Coachella will lap it up. I wanted to steer clear of that.
First published in Film Comment on March 29, 2018