This is not a normal pop documentary, because M.I.A. was not a normal pop star. On Tavis Smiley’s show earlier in 2009, she’d responded to a question about her artistic success by changing the subject to the “genocide” going on in her home country of Sri Lanka. On the Grammys red carpet, she sparred with a reporter over CNN omitting similar comments about genocide she made during an interview that, when it aired, focused on her music career. “You’re the first person that we’ve interviewed that says, ‘The piece was too much about me,’” the reporter shot back. “People mostly want it about them.”
Loveridge’s movie is a fantastic and kinetic fulfillment of Maya Arulpragasam’s desire, back then, to be heard as more than an entertainer. Starting with her 2004 debut, M.I.A. beat an aesthetically game-changing and controversy-strewn path across pop culture, broadcasting her backstory as a Tamil revolutionary’s refugee daughter who was trained in London art school and steeped in U.S. hip-hop. Her early aspiration of becoming a documentary filmmaker means Loveridge has a trove of electrifying pre- and post-fame footage to work with, which he uses for a smart, lively investigation of M.I.A.’s own vital themes: the lives of immigrants worldwide, the plight of the Sri Lankan people, and the question of whether pop stars can make effective political activists.
In 1985, the young Arulpragasam came with her mother, brother, and sister, alongside a wave of Sri Lankan refugees, to South London, leaving behind her father, Arular, whom she barely knew. That father, for whom her first album is named, has long held a contested, un-pin-downable place in her mythology. “This is what happened to a kid whose dad went off and became a terrorist,” she says into the camera during a mid-’90s confessional she filmed, though later in the press she would emphasize his role as a peacebroker and humanitarian.
Remarkably, the viewer gets to meet the famous Arular, whom Maya films when he comes to visit his estranged family. He describes the conflict in Sri Lanka as a human-rights crisis, he says he was the founder of the Tamil resistance movement, and he tells a story of smuggling bombs by hiding them under toys for his kids. Two of the three Arulpragasam siblings consider him a deadbeat. “His whole life is a dead end,” Maya’s brother, Sugu, says. “So now he’s talking about peace. Because he can’t fight now.” Maya, though, has a provocatively grateful take: “He’s made us damn interesting. He’s given us a bloody background!”
Her quest to understand this background—and document it—would send her on a 2001 trip to her childhood home in Sri Lanka. We see her hosts then were welcoming, but reluctant to share war stories, fearful of being caught in crackdowns on dissidents. They also appeared reluctant to take her interest in the Tamil struggle seriously—because she was a young woman, and because she was an expat. In a deeply striking moment, one of her subjects dismisses her credibility because she left the country as a child. “You never had the war zone experience,” he says with a smirk and a swat at the camera. Right there is the paradox of the refugee: In Sri Lanka, she’s an interloper, but in the West, she’s that too, taunted with slurs like “Paki.”