Berlinale 2018: 'Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.' is Not Just Another Music Doc
by Alex Billington
February 18, 2018
One of the best documentaries I've seen playing at film festivals this year is titled Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., a subversive profile of the controversial, badass, outspoken musician/activist known as "M.I.A." In real life, her full name is Maya Arulpragasam, and she's originally from Sri Lanka, an island off the southern coast of India. At first glance, this seems like a film that is another music documentary about a pop star and her rise to fame and fortune and glory. But it's anything but that. It's actually a much more personal, intimate story of a young woman who wants to bring attention to and raise awareness about very dire problems in the world, and injustices, and do so using the power of the microphone. But what if no one took her seriously? That's what this film is really about. And it's an eye-opening, alarming, invigorating documentary to watch.
While this documentary about a musician could be about record labels, and fame, and popularity and how bad it is, it's not about that. It's much more of an intimate look at identity and the struggle for people to take you seriously when you're an outspoken pop star. They just want you to sing and dance and perform and be an ideal role model, but screw that. Maya is exactly who she is – a product of her upbringing (her father founded one of the resistance groups in Sri Lanka, and her mother escaped to London to raise her and her siblings) and a woman who resists the temptations of a patriarchal society that wants her to be the perfect princess. She pushes back, and this film shows just how much she maintains her own identity even if she ends up being disliked. She wouldn't have it any other way, and I have more respect for her because of this.
This film really rattled me, in a good way, showing a completely different perspective and a side of the story most don't want to hear or don't want to believe. It's such an atypical doc but has such a powerful message deep down – resist, and stay honest, and maintain your integrity, no matter what. They could've chosen to show footage of her music videos and performances and big breaks and famous songs, and while there are a few clips, it's mostly home video and backstage footage. Maya wanted to be a doc filmmaker when she was growing up, so she knows how to keep filming all the time, wherever she goes, and most of this footage is used in here to tell her story. I wonder how much she had a hand in crafting the narrative for this film, and how much is what director Stephen Loveridge wanted to make this about. It seems to be a tricky balance.
This isn't a problem, the balance between Maya's story and her own desires, and Loveridge's direction as the filmmaker on the doc, so much as it's a creative choice. And the choices they did make in this regard result in a more intimate and persuasive film than one that tries to appeal to everyone and satisfy all audiences. There's something deeply admirable about that, going for honesty and personality rather than the typically satisfying focus on popularity and likability. Maya wants to change the world because she was raised in a way that allowed her to see how bad it is. And she realizes her potential to encourage change comes in the form of a microphone, and that she needs to use her fame for good, rather than for her own personal gain and satisfaction. This is a terrific documentary that shows us there's always much more than meets the eye.
Alex's Berlinale 2018 Rating: 9 out of 10
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