This is a documentary about popular musical artist M.I.A., with the title being her real name, an abbreviation of her real name used by her family, and her stage name. She is something of a documentarist’s dream as before her musical career took off she was interested in pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking and was filming herself obsessively before this was something every young person was doing. She also appears to have grown up in a family that liked recording itself. So there is plenty of “before she was famous” footage and indeed lots of home video footage from after she became famous, such is her interest in self-documentation. The film uses all this footage to good effect, combining it with more standard musical artist footage to present a fairly conventional version of M.I.A.’s musical career and life, from fleeing Sri Lanka as a refugee (partly thanks to anti-Tamil riots, partly thanks to parents’ involvement in the shady Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), growing up in a London council estate, going to art school, becoming a musical sensation and then becoming mired in controversy.
The controversies are both interesting and at times surprisingly funny. M.I.A.’s sense of herself as a Tamil and a refugee seems very important to her and her work often references both a sense of Tamil oppression (and fighting back against that oppression), a more general struggle against oppression, and then the refugee experience. Her lyrical concerns touch on global issues, particularly with reference to the global South, rather than purely with the marginalised First World experience more commonly seen in hip-hop. Her breakthrough in the USA with her second album, Kala, unfortunately coincided with the brutal end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, when the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers but used such levels of indiscriminate violence that non-combatants were killed in enormous numbers. In interviews, videos and social media posts M.I.A. attempted to push back against this and bring the horrific levels of human rights abuses taking place to a wider audience. For this she became something of a hate figure to members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese community, both there and in the Sri Lankan diaspora, as they saw her as an apologist for the terrorist Tamil Tigers spreading calumnies about their country. I found that instructive with regard to the elusive nature of truth in civil conflict situations.
What seemed a bit more unsavoury was an interview and long profile piece the New York Times did with M.I.A., where she was dismissed as a faux radical playing with Third World revolutionary slogans from a position of First World privilege (the New York Times made much of the father of her child and then fiancé being the super-rich heir to some big fortune). That seemed unfair, as M.I.A. had been sticking her neck out attempting to raise awareness of the massacres taking place in Sri Lanka, which are actual terrible events and not some kind of yeah-man facile cause célèbre du jour. Yet I can almost see where the New York Times was coming from – although M.I.A. was the child of refugees, grew up in a South London council estate, and had people spitting in her face and killing her a Paki, her self assurance and media savvy make it easy to see her as being in some way inauthentic and mysteriously privileged. That may say more about the New York Times' prejudices, however, as it amounts to thinking that the offspring of real refugees can’t go to art school and are only authentic if they remain picturesquely poor and inarticulate.
Those controversies are downers, but more roffletastic was the one that ensued when she performed with Madonna in the interval of the Superbowl in 2012. At some point she gave the finger to the camera, which then turned into a monumentally big deal because America is full of uptight crazy people. The film presents a montage of television commentators talking about how outraged they are by this terrible occurrence, lending support to the idea that right wing Americans are all butt-hurt man-baby snowflakes (and also dipshits, particularly the guy who started moaning about how Madonna should have picked American musicians to perform with). At one point the NFL was demanding some $15,000,000 from M.I.A. in a lawsuit arising from the incident, later offering to settle for 100% of any further income earned by her should her lifetime earnings ever go over $2,000,000 (her then manager, Mr Jay Z, apparently advised her to accept this). The suit was subsequently settled on terms that have not been revealed but the whole episode was an astonishing exercise in people taking things way too seriously (something that I fear may be America’s national past-time).
My liking for the film is not however without reservation. While I salute M.I.A.’s attempts to raise awareness of human rights abuses perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lanka, I found her uncritical support for the Tamil Tigers deeply troubling. The Tigers were an unsavoury bunch whose supposed struggle for Tamil rights led them to their own acts of indiscriminate violence against Sinhalese civilians and were led by a sinister figure who constructed a personality cult around himself. I think the film could have interrogated her beliefs in this regard. It should be possible to oppose the widespread large-scale massacres of Tamils that took place in Sri Lanka without falling into the trap of supporting terrorist violence against Sinhalese civilians: I do not think either justifies the other.
That is little more than a quibble, and I would still say to see this film, particularly if you can see it in a cinema. The music in it is great (obv.), not just the M.I.A. music but also some storming footage of Elastica that appears early on (in the Britpop era M.I.A. somehow fell in with Justine Frischmann and was at one stage shooting footage of Elastica for a possible documentary about them; in the film M.I.A. talks about how this was a miserable time for her as Frischmann’s bandmates all hated her). The other great thing about the film is that M.I.A. looks amazing, by which I do not just mean that she is rowr (of course she is, she’s M.I.A.) but that that she oozes charisma and is always wearing cool clothes. Her moves are great too and if you want big M.I.A. moves you need to see this on the big screen.
More M.I.A. action.
M.I.A. (Irish Times review of film)
M.I.A.'s middle finger (The Globe and Mail)
Still from Born Free video (jenesaispop: El mensaje de M.I.A. en ‘Born Free’)