Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.


No matter what the pose is, hip hop star M.I.A. is a controversial figure.

(2018) Music Documentary (CineReach/Abramorama) Maya Arulpragasam, Diplo, Ben Bronfman, Kala Arulpragasam, Spike Jonze, Arular Arulpragasam, Sugu Arulpragasam, Kali Arulpragasam, Justine Frischmann, Nick Huggett, Lynn Hirschberg. Directed by Steve Loveridge

 

In this age where everything is divisive, there are few more polarizing figures than hip-hop superstar M.I.A. To some, she is a terrorist supporter (her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers who fought against oppression of her ethnic group in Sri Lanka). To others, she is a hero standing up for the victims of genocide in her native Sri Lanka. For others, she’s a brilliant musician, combining elements of world music and hip-hop. To some, she’s a dilettante who lives in luxury while railing against poverty.

The truth is that M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam but nicknamed Maya early on in her life, is all of those things. She has always been her own person, refusing to be put in a box. As a child her mother and remaining children (she talks early on how two of her six brothers were killed in Sri Lanka) immigrated to England where she encountered racism and abuse for her refugee status. She spent much of her early life, like most teens, trying to figure out what her place in the world was and early on determined not to be pigeonholed.

Music has always been a refuge for her and although she went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker and indeed started out making music videos for Elastica and other bands of the era (she and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann became close friends) it was her mash-ups of various beats and ethnic sounds that caught the attention of XL Recordings and with an in-yo-face performance style and unforgettable songs became one of the biggest stars in the world.

She has never been shy about expressing herself; invited by the NFL to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, she expressed her disillusionment at America by flipping the bird to the cameras for which she was sued by the NFL which was eventually settled. A crude gesture, sure but that’s M.I.A. all over.

Loveridge utilized old home movies and videos (as a teen she was a compulsive recorder of life events) as well as behind the scenes access to create a portrait of a very complex and often difficult woman. She has a voice and a platform and something to say and her activism is on display in an often hagiographic documentary but at the same time she really doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the world thinks about her – yet she seems driven to having as much exposure as humanly possible. Is it so she can get her message across? Maybe…it’s hard to know sometimes what’s hype and what’s real.

My big issue with the documentary is that it jumps all over the place, both in a chronological sense and a thematic sense. At one point we see her with one fiancée, then in a scene or two later she has a different fiancée and is pregnant without any transition. It’s jarring and while I don’t think we necessarily have to delve that much into her personal romantic life, there should be some flow there and that’s what this documentary lacks.

The movie will be making an appearance locally on October 1st at the Enzian Theater for their South Asian Film Festival and while the movie is British in origin, certainly the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka is a big part of this film as is the music of the Tamil culture. What you end up thinking about M.I.A. – disingenuous huckster using her message as publicity for her musical career, or committed and passionate activist desperately trying to bring the plight of the Tamil people to the mainstream Western media – is up to you. I’m not here to review her life, only her documentary and I find the film massively flawed, although the story of her life is compelling enough. Unlike documentaries however, real life doesn’t get the opportunity to be fixed in the editing bay, something this film desperately needed. M.I.A. seems to have done better in that regard than the film about her did.

REASONS TO GO: The activism of M.I.A. is very much to be admired.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary isn’t very well-organized; at times it feels like it’s jumping back and forth all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loveridge met M.I.A. at film school; this is his first documentary feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Dresser

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Girl Model


Girl Model

Meat markets come in all sorts of varieties.

(2011) Documentary (Cinereach) Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh, Madlen, Tigram. Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

There is a certain glamour inherent with the modeling industry. Beautiful girls flown to exotic locations, dressing in designer couture, adored by millions. So when talent agents come calling, it’s not hard to understand why young girls answer with eyes full of stars.

One such agent is Ashley Arbaugh who herself was a teen model. Her territory is mostly the former Soviet Union where she plucks young girls to work in the lucrative Japanese market. The promise of easy cash and a foot in the door of an industry that’s notoriously hard to break into brings girls swarming to try-outs, particularly in economically depressed places like Siberia.

Nadya Vall lives in a small village in Siberia. Her parents are poor; they live in a tiny little house that her father has been adding on additional room so that his children may have rooms of their own. However work has stalled on that as he is barely making enough money to make ends meet as it is.

Her shy, sweet demeanor and lustrous child-like beauty get her a contract with Ashley and her Russian boss Tigram. Tigram sees himself as a kind of savior for these young girls, taking them out of bad situations and giving them fame and fortune. Of course, he gets a cut of both but that’s a small price to pay isn’t it?

Nadya sets out for Tokyo and things turn into a nightmare from there. Nobody from the agency meets Nadya at the airport; she is lost, not knowing where to go or what to do and doesn’t speak any other language than Russian; tearfully she begs the filmmakers to translate to English to the Japanese clerks to find out information as to where she can find the apartment she’s supposed to stay at.

Eventually things sort themselves out and she is set up in a tiny little apartment that looks to be the size of a walk-in closet. She has a roommate, Madlen, who is supposed to share the space with her – and it’s not a lot of space, let’s face it.

Japanese law requires her to have two paying jobs in order to remain in the country for the full length of the visa. She is sent to try-out after try-out, to shoot after shoot with no sales forthcoming. The two are made to realize that if their measurements increase even by a centimeter they will be sent packing and not paid; in fact, because of the cost of their apartment and their airfare, they will be deep in debt to the agency.

Homesickness, the psychological wear and tear of not being wanted and the general indifference of those who are supposed to be watching over them take their toll. Madlen, who at last has a credit card from her family that allows her to purchase food, eats her way back home on purpose leaving Nadya alone in a country that she doesn’t understand – and at 13 years old, is she really equipped to handle this situation?

This is absolutely riveting stuff. There are no real regulatory agencies that watch over these girls. 13 and 14 year old girls are encouraged to lie about their ages and are sent to Japan and other countries unsupervised and essentially thrown out into the waters to sink or swim – and they mostly sink. There is a good deal of hypocrisy – Arbaugh tells her next set of girls airily that everyone makes money in Japan after we’ve just clearly seen two girls who returned home deeply in debt, and we are given the impression that it isn’t all that uncommon. Everybody gets paid but the models.

This isn’t just exploitation, it’s white slavery. There needs to be an industry watchdog to ensure that these girls get proper supervision, understand what it is they’re getting into and have some regulatory power to watch that the girls aren’t exploited. Unfortunately, as Arbaugh herself says late in the film, it isn’t much of a step to go from modeling to prostitution. After all, both are instances of a woman selling her body.

I didn’t expect that there was a story here that I’d be hooked by. Fashion interests me not in the least and I’d always had the perception that models are mostly self-absorbed divas who had a very easy life that required very little work on their part. After all, how hard can looking beautiful be?

Obviously, being a guy makes me completely dumb and uneducated as to how hard work it is for women to look beautiful, models or no so perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance. However one screening of this documentary is enough to shock my system into understanding that there is exploitation of children going on in this industry – and it needs to be stopped.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling and heartbreaking. Eye-opening look on a shadowy world.

REASONS TO STAY: Pounds its point a little bit too relentlessly. May have benefitted from some follow-up.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some profanity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the making of the film, Arbaugh got a job with Elite Models in New York scouting American girls.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Picture Me

JAPAN LOVERS: Some aspects of the Japanese culture are explored here.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Monsieur Lazhar