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Problematic pop stars: M.I.A.

INTERVIEW! Controversial pop star M.I.A. has always flipped negatives to positives. Can she do the same for the documentary she initially lambasted? Steve Loveridge's Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. hits Berlin cinemas November 22.

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Controversial pop star M.I.A. has always flipped negatives to positives. Can she do the same for the documentary she initially lambasted? Steve Loveridge’s Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. hits Berlin cinemas November 22.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. sees filmmaker Steve Loveridge condense around 700 hours of personal footage belonging to pop provocateur M.I.A. into a brisk feature documentary chronicling the early days of her career, her background as a Sri Lankan refugee in London and the media establishment’s hounding of a controversial pop star.

The film had garnered controversy ahead of its Berlinale debut, as M.I.A. herself openly criticised it on numerous fronts at its Sundance world premiere. I sat down with the filmmaker and its subject, keeping my fingers crossed that the pair would still be on speaking terms.

M.I.A: I warn you, I’m a bit hungover. I needed a drink after seeing the film again last night…

About that… You’ve openly said that this isn’t the film you would have made. After seeing it again, has that opinion changed at all?

M: From the last time I saw the film at Sundance to yesterday, I haven’t seen Steve. He’s clearly been avoiding me! And I get it – he’s made a film and people like it, and I’m not going to come and stomp all over it and hijack the film, which I think he’s really scared of. He went to New York and made the film and I didn’t know what it was going to be. He hasn’t given me the opportunity to make a few edits or even see the film before it premiered. I’m just bitching at this point… [Laughs]

Why did you give Steve all this footage in the first place?

M: I was going through a very difficult time in 2010 and 2011, and the tour I did, which was the same year I left America and came back to Europe, was crazy. The shows were intense, difficult and interesting and important for me. Creatively, I was going through so many things and what I had was a lot of show footage from around the world. I was really embraced and really rejected, and there was a love/hate thing going on. The footage was insane and I told Steve that he should cut a tour documentary of the Maya album because people hate this album so much. I did so much work around that album that nobody had seen. So, I gave all that to Steve and never really thought about it. Then Steve wanted more and more stuff. I sporadically gave him more, and then he changed things without telling me.

The reaction towards the film has been very positive though – do you feel happier now?

M: It’s very weird, you know? My entire life has been so compartmentalised and I’ve got to show this to my parents and family.

Have they seen it yet?

M: No, not yet.

Steve: Some of your cousins were there last night and they seemed to respond really well to it…

M: Yeah… And my aunty was crying.

S: And you were crying…

M: And I was crying too. It’s going to be a lot of that, and I was never given the time to digest things before this all happened.

You both met at St. Martins art college in London, and you, Maya, wanted to be a filmmaker. After this experience, would you consider going into moviemaking?

M: I would, yeah, but even that’s hard because right now everyone’s saying that smart people don’t make movies, they make TV series, and it seems that even moviemaking is quite an endangered art form!

You sound very pessimistic…

M: Yeah, sorry – Iike I said, I’m hungover! (Laughs). I’m writing movies all the time, but I know they’re all going to be problematic and so no one will give me any money to make them. When Steve and I were students, I was always writing scripts and he would say: “You’re on the dole, you can’t do this”. So then I was like: “Fine, I’m going to get a record deal, and then I’m going to make a movie with it” and years later, I still haven’t achieved that. Steve has… I’m going to do it, but I need to make it less problematic … which is problematic for me.

You’re called a “problematic pop star” a lot…

M: Yeah, it’s fashionable now to be an activist in your music, but even then, there are codes, and when I tried to touch on that a few years ago, I got ambushed by the press and banned from festivals. But that conversation was never had about what “problematic” actually means. What makes a person or an issue problematic or not? Also, can you talk about two issues at once or do you have to talk about one issue at a time? There’s a queue now. Before, we never had to be picking and choosing. But now, between September and November, we’re going to be talking about what it’s like being a woman; between November and April, we’re going to talk about being gay… You know what I mean? Now there’s just a timescale and you get slotted in.

Do you think it’s more a burden or a gift to be in the public eye and to be so influential?

M: I don’t know. When I came to England as a refugee, everyone said that the best thing you could possibly do is become a pop star, and then I did it in 15 years and then was like: “OK, this is it, what now?” And then someone said that you go to the ball and marry the prince and be Cinderella, and I did that and moved to Beverly Hills. And that wasn’t really it… Ultimately, it’s always about work. I like working and I like making work, and I think that’s a common thread. No matter what happens in your personal life and what the issues are – whether you’re an immigrant, a refugee, a woman, a single parent, poor – no matter what, you’re just making work.

S: At the beginning of the film, Maya’s making music on a $300 keyboard, cutting up cereal packets and spraying stuff, and I think that work is just as good as expensive music videos. To me, they’re just the same, and I hope people watch the film and get inspired, that kids see it and then try with whatever they have in front of them. Work, make stuff and definitely document yourself! That’s another message: don’t think that filming your dinner and Instagramming and all that is documenting your life. It’s not. Remember to buy a proper video camera and stick it on a sideboard and film the important moments if you really want to document things. All these 10 second little clips do not add up to stories.

M: In the end, I like making work and then shit comes at you because you did, and then you’ve got to handle it. There are real consequences: you have to get fired and hired, or go to court and get dropped, blocked, hacked… It all happens, but those things teach me about society and then feeds into the work I make.

You come across in this film as a real voice for so many dispossessed people – and you can see that you’ve taken a load of flack over the years…

M: Yes! Thank you! There’s been a lot of flack and when you get to address it, they make it about something else…

S: I think one of the nice things about the documentary is that we managed to take that flack and turn it into something interesting and positive, showing Maya doing that thing she does, which is taking negative experiences and flipping it and processing it to get stories and work out of it, and see a positive however difficult the obstacle is. When we first met, I came to her and she asked me: “What’s your problem? Why are you always so sad?” And I was like: “Oh, I’m really awkward, I’m gay, I’m not good looking and I don’t know what to do and I don’t fit in”. And her reply was: “Just stick a fucking wig on and you’re Andy Warhol! You’re weird and people would die to be as weird as you. People are dying their hair purple and getting piercings but you’re actually really weird – use it! ” She always does that and I hope it comes across in the film.

Another filmmaker could have made something more sensational with the material…

S: Yeah, but I’ve been to Maya’s house, I’ve met her family and so there was a trust there when it came to handing over the tapes. Because it doesn’t just affect Maya, it affects her whole family and we knew that we would never put something out there that would in any way hurt them or make them feel vulnerable. So, yeah, another filmmaker would probably have made a very different film.

M: I think there’s also the fact that there’s loads of other people going through this…

S: Yeah – I just saw that BBC strand on Syrian refugees coming over, and it ends with someone getting a job in a petrol station or just getting their council house and this feels like it’s stage B to C. I mean, don’t limit your expectations and your hopes for these people. Within one generation, Maya got pop stardom and magazine covers, and you can open your mind to them having the same dreams and aspirations and achievements as everybody else has. It doesn’t have to be: “Well done, you got off the boat and you get to work in a shop.”

M: I think it’s more universal than that. It’s not just about refugees. It’s about taking negatives and turning them into positives. Shit happens and it’s about your ability to turn it around and how quickly you do. And I get it that we’re in this Instagram phase of people putting up positive quotes and feeling like they’ve achieved that thing because they’ve read something for that day; but it’s about the persistence of needing that ability throughout your life, and hopefully that’s applicable to more people than just those who are coming from a war zone.

Finally, which part of the film did you like the most?

M: There are a few moments. I saw stuff in it yesterday that I didn’t see before. I liked the “Born Free” section because those were the only two clips Steve used of the initial idea… before he changed the narrative!