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M.I.A's self-shot documentary is finally out – but is she unhappy?

At the Berlin Film Festival the tension between M.I.A and the director entrusted with making her documentary was palpable

The first images of MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A, Steve Loveridge’s long-awaited documentary about the rapper and singer-songwriter M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasm), show swirling green lights coming in and out of focus while a young woman talks about directing, performing and being in front of a camera. Some infectious beats creep in with a hip-hop weight and unmissable magnetic vocals. She’s distorted, it’s an abstract introduction to the subject. This opening teases what expectations might predict from a tribute to the colour-soaked trailblazing musician - but it soon gives way to a much more complicated, messy film.

In a rare instance of Steve audibly directing Maya, he asks from behind the camera early on in their journey: “Why don’t you just shut up?”. What he really seems to be asking is “Why don't you ever just shut up”. She keeps dancing unconcerned, already showing signs of the self-affirmed ‘bandit’ she became – but Steve probes further: “Why are you a problematic popstar?”. It’s hard to work out whether this is playful teasing, or a warning sign of a deeper problem in their friendship. As the pair take their seats at the 2018 Berlinale press conference to promote the film, the noticeable tension between them points to the latter.

“The director of the film claimed he’d rather die than finish the project in early 2013”

Maya met Steve at Central Saint Martins in 1998. They both studied fine art, film and video and developed a friendship throughout and beyond their degree. In 2011, Maya gave Steve 700 hours of mostly self-shot documentary footage of her life, and they agreed that he would make a film about it. There have since been stops, silence and uncertainty as to what the film would ever be. After Loveridge claimed he’d “rather die” than finish the film in early 2013 , before promising a 2014 finish and then only announcing the official release last November – it’s a miracle the film has been made at all.

Viewers looking for an insight into M.I.A.’s sonic and visual kaleidoscope of a career may be disappointed. While the music video for “Borders” bookends the film, the narrative only concedes to the infectious and iconic “Paper Planes” 40 minutes in – and it does so briefly. Instead, Loveridge peels back layers of Maya’s emotional makeup, from her distanced relationship with her father, co-founder of the Tamil Resistance Movement, to the relentless conflict with the U.S. press around her outspoken political agenda.

There’s no overruling voiceover to shape Maya into any one of the personas she’s been dealt by the media. From leaving Sri Lanka to joining Madonna and Nicki Minaj at the 2012 Super Bowl half-time show, the only audible guiding voice of the film is the one behind most of the grainy handheld shots, as Maya films her own life in order to make sense of it. Covering an exhaustively personal emotional journey, it feels like you can only enjoy the film if you’re sure that she does.

“I haven’t fully digested it,” Maya reveals at the press conference in Berlin – the second festival to show the film after its premiere at Sundance last month. “I’ve seen it one and a half times and I haven’t really talked to Steve since Sundance. Obviously there’s a lot of conversations to be had between us”.

She admits this while sat closely next to him – it’s only the two of them promoting and processing the film in person. When asked why she gave away her footage to someone else, despite her own experience as a documentary and experimental filmmaker, she says, without looking at him: “I didn’t think that this would be the film. Steve came along and made it into the documentary that he made”.

“At the Berlin Film Festival M.I.A says to the director that she's too tired to take him to court”

There’s no saying whether Maya likes or dislikes the now-defining documentary about her life. Her restrained answers in Berlin are telling of her ongoing complicated relationship with Steve, who worked on the film for several years without consulting the artist. In January, Loveridge told Deadline that he needed to follow his instinct. “In our friendship I’m always the shy, unconfident one. But this has been a lesson in that maybe I am a bit more confident than I thought.”

Both in the film and in Berlin, Maya doesn’t look as electric as her music feels. She lets Steve talk about his intentions and thoughts on the finished film without looking at him – save a few telling eye-rolls. But after a few questions, she carefully looks at him and acquiesces: “I have to treat it as free therapy. I’m just too tired to take you to court.”