Matangi/Maya/M.I.A

As that hybrid of a title might suggest, this documentary doesn’t quite know what it is until it gets there. We tag along for the journey of self-discovery of Sri Lankan-born London hip hop artist M.I.A in a film portrait put together by her friend from St Martins art school days, Steve Loveridge.

I’m a fan of hers, having seen her several times in various venues, from little clubs to the Royal Festival Hall. I like her style, her energy and her attitude and there’s all of that in the doc. What makes it fascinating and enjoyable is watching Maya work all this stuff out for herself, find her image and her voice, so to say.

The family fled Sri Lanka (Matangi is what her family call her) as asylum seekers, when life with a father who was founder of the Tamil Resistance movement simply got too dangerous. They housed little Maya (as she wanted to be called in England, because it was easier), her Mum and brothers in a south London council flat and her life began again, fusing all that Sri Lankan colour and the feelings of exile with the vibrancy and music of London and its streets.

MIA is very much DIY – she’s put together from beats and pieces, fragments of clothing, snatches of RnB, hip hop, Madonna, Bollywood, movies, Britpop; she builds her career through new technologies such as MySpace and Napster, and we marvel at how ephemeral pop culture can be, and how swift Maya is to jump on it, use it and use it up…

She’s controversial and the tide of opinion often seems to swing against her, particularly after her Super Bowl middle finger incident, or being accused of supporting terrorism, or appearing on the MTV awards 9 months pregnant.

As a study of someone struggling with identity and image, it’s a fascinatingly modern portrait, and a very London story. I loved the footage of her dancing in her front room as a teenager, and I loved seeing her later working out her ‘look’ in a garage, like one of those dressing up montages in a romcom or  those getting-ready-for-prom type films.

And, whoever she is, I liked her. The odd point is that M.I.A is probably rather unique yet you also feel there must be loads more girls just like her out there. I hope they all find their own voices like she did.