Documentary review: Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

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10th March 2021


When Mathangi (Maya) Arulpragasam took out Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in 1996, it had been 10 years since it was last borrowed from the London City Library. The book had been lying idle for a decade amidst a busy crowd of sleeping beauties. Black Skin, White Masks expresses the restlessness and the haunting trauma of the misconfiguration between the experiences and identity of the persecuted. Fanon demystifies the socially constructed realm of ideas driving our perception of oppression and exposes the need to awaken bystanders from their ignorance and overwhelming hubris. This is exactly what Maya, or M.I.A, has intended to do and art has been her medium.


Even after years of periodically listening to M.I.A’s Paper Planes, the Grammy nominated song seemed to be nothing more than the latest pop hit produced by a band of robots. Not until I stumbled across the artist’s documentary, Matangi/Maya/MIA, did I realise the story being told. Maya, or M.I.A, is a Sri Lankan Tamil musician and filmmaker who moved as a refugee to South London at age 11. Her father was a high-profile figure of the Tamil independence movement and was engaged in the gruesome civil war which continued until 2009. Maya’s encounters with the injustice of the Sri Lankan violence were silenced by the fear and oppression which reigned over the nation for decades. Paper Planes is an anthem of protest against the scapegoating stereotypes which plague the immigrant communities of the world. Her artistic and creative productions are the means through which she fights for the truth and activation of social and political consciousness. Paper Planes is a testament to both the ills of immigrant oppression and the vitality of their movement, and this intermingling has brought about the development of a thriving urban culture.


Maya’s documentary is an ode to her artistic activism as she accounts for the years of war-torn struggles in Sri Lanka, while simultaneously highlighting her experience of the hypocrisy and censorship of western media. The film itself is eccentric in form but it is through this raw style that an unfiltered depiction of the evolution of M.I.A, a world-renowned artist and silenced victim of censorship, is revealed. During the violent years of Sri Lanka’s civil war, one could not speak up for fear of death. In the West, one can speak but cannot be heard. Maya was, and often still is, portrayed in the international sphere as a pseudo-political activist using her platform and fame to preach irrelevant claims of human rights violations and Tamil independence. If she was not dismissed by U.S talk show hosts, her indigestible exposure of Sri Lankan war crimes was simply edited out by media bureaucracies in the West. In the New York Times, she was politically delegitimised due to the singular fact that she ordered truffle flavoured chips at a restaurant. She is wealthy and famous; therefore, she has no right to complain about injustice. If she were poor and invisible, would anyone hear her complain? In an international television interview, the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary claimed that she “should stick to what she is good at, and that is music.’’ Unlike her pop music, Maya’s experiences of war and injustice were simply too uncomfortable for the ears of the western media.


“She is wealthy and famous; therefore, she has no right to complain about injustice. If she were poor and invisible, would anyone hear her complain?”


Maya was sued by the NFL for £15 million because she stuck up her middle finger during her Superbowl performance with Madonna. Her music video for the song Born Free received infinite outbursts of negative attention due to its violent graphics and controversial messages involved. The video sets the scene of the genocide of ginger-haired civilians in London. The production was inspired by the leaked footage of Sri Lankan authorities executing Tamil civilians the same year. When Maya shared the real-life coverage of the Sri Lankan executions on her Twitter feed, the post fell on deaf ears. The Sri Lankan war crimes and suspected genocide continued to be silenced in the international press. When an electro-pop melody, fake blood and ginger-haired actors got involved, the world erupted in outrage and YouTube censored the video’s availability.


‘Art is either a poem or a piece of cheese’. If an artist does not dare to create outside the boundaries of censored societies and perceived taboos, what is being created is nothing more than an empty medium, a blank canvas. Not only do people like Maya have social and political platforms from which millions could potentially listen to what they have to say, but artists also possess a form of communication more powerful and unique than any political campaign. They possess the power of influence, of inciting understanding and most significantly, they have the power to change the velocity of a society.


Truth is, nonetheless, a taboo. This taboo continues to be silenced, prosecuted, and dismissed every day across the world no matter how large and wide the platform of communication may be. Many people, therefore, enjoy an idea of equality that does not exist in their society. Political censorship enables this to continue. Art, on the other hand, remains to be a fundamental means of expression within our interconnected world. Censorship and political dismissal of artists is therefore an undermined and alarming problem. “The condition of truth is to allow the suffering to speak.”


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