A star personality in sharper focus than the career she has shaped.


The title of this documentary portrait lists the three names by which Mathangi Arulpragasam is known. If that suggests multiple personalities, that is not altogether inappropriate for the Hounslow-born Sri Lankan has made her mark in several capacities. A singer/songwriter now recognised internationally as a rapper, she is also a record producer but, when starting out at Central St. Martin’s school of art in London (whence her family had moved in 1986), her ambition was to be a documentary filmmaker. If music would take over instead, that did not exclude work done as a painter and as a designer of record covers and she has been nominated for a whole range of awards.


But what makes M.I.A. no ordinary rapper is the extent of her political activism given proper emphasis here and doubtless inherited in large part from her father who supported the fight for independence of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. All of this supplies rich material for a film but, due to its wide range, the subject matter also provides a challenge to the director here who is Matangi’s frequent collaborator Steve Loveridge. The mixture of home videos and other old footage alongside new interviews is standard for this kind of movie, but much more unusual and distinctly unhelpful is Loveridge’s decision to move back and forth in time instead of proceeding chronologically: the effect is to reduce the impact and to blur the progression in her work.


Where the film does succeed is in giving a platform to its star with full opportunities to express herself on camera. This approach can seem rough-hewn but it is splendidly direct and that seems to suit her personality and her combative manner. Off-screen she has apparently been critical of Loveridge for not using more songs in the film and, while some related videos appear including one noted for its controversial violence, it is the case that for those like myself unfamiliar with her work detail is often lacking. Thus, we could do with much more by way of direct illustrations of what has been described as the political, philosophic and cultural references in her music. Her personal life as opposed to her background remains vague here (there is no mention of the fact that her relationship with the father of her child ended in 2012), but that is not necessarily a weakness. However, the overall impression is that the film skims over the surface of her career erratically rather than fully defining and illuminating it. In contrast, given the current approval for The New York Times on the part of those who detest Trump, there is real edge when M.I.A. attacks the paper over a profile of her which suggested that her activism was a pose. On balance, I am inclined to think that this film will work better for those already well informed about her since what is best here is not the study of her career but her personal comments.




Featuring  Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasam.


Dir Steve Loveridge, Pro Steve Loveridge, Lori Cheatle, Andrew Goldman and Paul Mezey, Ph Graham Boonzaaier, Catherine Goldschmidt and Matt Wainwright, Ed Marina Katz and Gabriel Rhodes, Music Dhani Harrison and Paul Hicks.


Cinereach/Hard Working Movies/Doc Society-Dogwoof.
96 mins. USA/UK. 2018. Rel: 21 September 2018. Cert. 18.