As I walked into the gleaming dark of the Michigan Theater’s screening room, I wasn’t sure what I should expect from this documentary. Most “behind the scenes” films of celebrities are tinted with a shade of superficiality–the video of their charity cases feels a bit staged, smiles just a little too brilliant next to the filth of whatever third-world country their agent told them to grace.
I won’t lie to you, dear reader; this documentary was not completely innocent of these offences. M.I.A. had definitely seemed to have lost touch of the way of life in her of native Sri Lanka after her rise to fame in the mid-2000s. This causes some of her actions to feel false. Yet old video from an earlier visit back home, just a few years before she made it big, told a different story. Rather than seeming like a tourist, she was back to belonging, and what was able to shock her–police barging into houses at all hours of the night, for example–genuinely resonated with her. She related to people there, spoke Tamil with them, shared food and stories. Sri Lanka was still, and is still, inside of her.
M.I.A.’s origin story can be told succinctly, despite its far-reaching repercussions. After fleeing the civil unrest and violence of Sri Lanki with her mother and siblings at the age of 10, she grew up without her Tamil Resistance-leading father.
But that is not where her story began. Even as a young child, she dreamed of becoming a documentary film maker–her own video comprises much of the documentary. Music has always been a passion as well: she’s shown dancing wildly as a kid in Sri Lanka and later as an adult in a recording studio. The film went on to tell of her rapidly increasing fame, and her growth along the way. Not being the most confident person in the world myself, I gather a lot of inspiration from the ultimate Cool Girl that is M.I.A. Her funky, brightly-colored style is present in not only her clothes and music but also her vibrant speech, her fierce projection of her beliefs.
My only real critique of this piece is how little it focused on the censorship she’s faced in her career. There were a few points made about the reactions to one of her music videos, jounalists dismissing her thoughts on the turbulance in Sri Lanka, and that one time she flipped the camera off at the Superbowl. In light of her recent announcement she’s taking a break from the music industry due to her frustration about censorship, there should have been a little more attention given to this.
This film provided a good look into a strange paradox: with fame comes a microphone with sound to reach the ears of everyone. Yet the role our society gives to celebrities is only to entertain; we discount their need to be advocates for something in the larger world. Maybe one day we’ll give them a chance and start listening.