film: “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” (2018)

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.

image sources:

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’)

Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 3: Moomins, Clipping #Worldcon75

My write-up of Helsinki Worldcon continues. I am still discussing the second day. The previous episode can be seen here.
After the Tanith Lee discussion there were a lot of potentially interesting things happening but we felt that we had to go to a session on the Moomins (entitled Moomins!). As you know, these are character that appeared in books written and illustrated by Tove Jansson of Finland. They started life in books and then progressed to comics and subsequently to a succession of animated TV series. If you’ve never heard of them, the Moomins are vaguely hippopotamus shaped creatures that live in a house in Moominvalley and have a variety of strange friends and adopted family members. Moomin stories are pretty cute but also deal with subjects a bit darker and more existential than is normally expected in children’s books.

The discussion was interesting, with the panellists’ enthusiasm for the subject being evident. I enjoyed the trip through Jansson’s life with the Moomins, particularly the revelation that it was a British newspaper that commissioned her to write and draw the Moomin comic strip and that it was intended primarily as a diverting read primarily for adults rather than children. Jansson appears to be one of those writers who found herself almost resenting the demands made on her by her most successful work, feeling that time spent on the Moomins was keeping her from more important artistic activities (something those of us in wage slavery can readily sympathise with). However for all her tendency to include dark elements in the Moomin books, particularly the later ones (e.g. Moomintroll waking up early from hibernation and having to spend the winter alone in Moominvalley Midwinter or the Moomins’ friends’ sadness at the Moomins’ absence in Moominvalley in November), I did not particularly get the impression that she lived a life of misery and despair.

The panel discussed screen presentations of the Moomins. Sadly none of them were particularly familiar with the Polish stop motion animation series of the early 1980s, which for me is the definitive TV version, capturing the strangeness of the stories and the interplay between cuteness and menace (particularly well seen in the episode of the Hobgoblin’s Hat). While the 1990s cartoon was mentioned as having brought one of the panelists into the Moominverse, it appears to have left out all sinister elements and gone solely for the cute, cementing in the eyes of many the idea that the Moomins are only for kids.

I was thinking afterwards that it was a shame there was no discussion of the Moomins on the Worldcon academic track. The Moomins look like animals but behave like humans and so are clearly interstitial beings, thus clearly unheimlich and creators of an intense feeling of estrangement.

After that we caught a panel with the exciting title of Beyond the Cash Nexus, based on an injunction by Ursula Le Guin that SF writers should be imagining post capitalist futures. The panel was however a bit poor, with the panellists limiting themselves to trotting out a fairly simplistic list of anti-capitalist 101 complaints against the currently existing world economic system without even the shadow of any suggestion as to how a post-capitalist society would work; anything they said that moved towards policy suggestions was in the character of reforming the current system than modelling how it might be replaced. There was also a strange paradox between the panellists railing against bureaucracy and then proposing measures that would require a massive bureaucratic overhead to implement. And I was particularly struck by the naivety of a claim that industrial action by their workers will inevitably force corporations to pay their taxes, as it took no notice of the collapse in unionisation private sector organisations have seen over the last 40 years.
The final thing I saw that evening was a performance by the hip-hop act Clipping. Hip-hop is not normally a thing at Science Fiction conventions but Clipping’s album Splendor & Misery had been nominated for a Hugo Award in the best dramatic presentation (short) category. That category is normally contested by individual episode of TV programmes or short films but Splendor & Misery is a concept album telling the story of a revolt on a spaceship carrying slaves to another planet; Clipping are consciously placing it in the afro-futurist tradition of Sun Ra, Parliament/Funkadelic, Drexciya and so on. As a narrative and a fairly short album, the record met the Hugo eligibility requirements.

Clipping’s performance took place in one of the conference centre’s large function rooms. It was a strange place for a hip-hop concert, with everyone sitting in rows of seats as though they were going to be listening to a lecture. When Clipping came on though they informed the audience that there was space at the front and in the aisles, which led to a rush forward and the concert then progressed on more normal lines. Thereupon they bombed through the songs from their (short) album and delivered us some other exciting tunes.
Hip-hop is one of those things I am only so interested in on record but it always seems to pack a punch live. This performance was no exception, with Daveed Diggs proving to be an impressive frontman. The accompanying music recalled the fractured beats of artists on the UK’s Warp label more than what I associated with US hip-hop. At one point the music appeared to be nodding towards Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of the Doctor Who theme, but that may have been projection on my part.

Clipping certainly won over the audience present, though of course by this point the votes for the Hugo Awards had already been cast.
After this we tried going to a party hosted by the Dublin Worldcon bid team but they had run out of booze and the convention centre bar was overwhelmed by the number of thirsty SF fans, so we escaped back to where we were staying and had a last drink in the Tintin Tango café.

Moomin image source (Wikipedia, comic cover, fair use etc.)

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