When she was attending Central St Martins College at the turn of the millennium, the Sri Lankan born Mathangi Arulpragasam had ambitions to become a documentary filmmaker. Her obsessive lensing and her brief but dizzying success as the rapper MIA ensures that Steve Loveridge, director of this appropriately messy, wonderful film, has plenty of material to work with.
Home movies reveal a lively, prickly, fun teenager growing up on an estate in southwest London. The family have fled there to escape the civil war, but her Tamil Tiger father, the founder of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, has stayed on to fight.
The duality of the immigrant experience is writ large throughout. “One day in Sri Lanka I was getting shot at for being a Tamil, then I came to England and I was being spat at for being a Paki,” says Mathangi.
She remains fascinated by the country of her birth, marvelling at footage of young female soldiers, but when she travels there, hoping to reconnect with her culture, she is lightly teased by a relative for having left aged nine. “You never had the war zone experience,” he smiles condescendingly.
Even as an artist and a musician, it’s a constant struggle to fit in. As the tour diarist for Elastica, Mathangi is unimpressed when her mentor and flatmate, Justine Frischmann, fails to engage with meaningful issues. “I thought: you’ve got access to a microphone, please use it to say something,” she says.
It's this desire to "say something" that proves her undoing. Repeated attempts during interviews to change the subject to Sri Lankan "genocide" do not go over well with American reporters. Her 2009 music video for Born Free, in which red-headed white boys are rounded up and executed, was greeted with outrage, except by New York Times Magazine journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who is seen here praising the video, right before she writes an infamous 2010 hatchet-job profile.
When Mathangi raises her middle finger during Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, it signals the end of her American celebrity and the beginning of a humourless lawsuit from the NFL.
There are rumours that this film was finished in 2013 but that battles over rights and labels delayed the release. That may explain why the film seems to break so suddenly. It remains, nonetheless, the brilliant, engaging, witty, provocative portrait that its subject deserves.