How to make a music video like M.I.A.

Gener8ion on how he had the vision for one of the most provocative videos of the decade

M.I.A. doesn’t do bad music videos – this much, we already know. But even in a career full of eye-popping visual turns, “The New International Sound Pt II” stands out as special. Released this week for a track produced by GENER8ION (a new project from French producer Surkin), the cast-of-thousands clip has to rank as one of the most stunningly choreographed music videos of all time – and there isn’t even any dancing in it. That’s because the video is, in fact, a carefully spliced edit of a feature-length documentary, Inigo Westmeier’s 2012 film Dragon Girls, about three young girls’ trial by fire at the notoriously tough Tagou Martial Arts School in China. Paired with M.I.A.’s provocative lyric (“You can kill my privacy / but you can’t kill that love in me”), it makes for an explosive meditation on state control, strength in discipline and personal defiance. We spoke to Surkin AKA G – who had the vision to re-edit it for the track – and Westmeier to get the inside story on the video...

GET IN SYNC

Gener8ion: I stumbled upon Inigo’s documentary pretty late at night on French TV at the same time I was working on the track. It immediately made sense. I played it again and again, playing the music at the same time – it was completely magical. The way everything was synchronised, it really felt like they were dancing on the actual track. The katas turned into this huge, unreal musical choreography. It was the perfect match. I contacted Inigo and his team and they agreed to work with us on adapting it into a music video. They gave us full access to the footage they shot in China for the documentary, which is incredibly generous. The challenge was to make (the footage) look natural in a completely new context without compromising the source material. I think we managed to do that pretty well and I’m very happy with the result.

Inigo Westmeier: Ben (Surkin) had an idea of how my film could fit together with his new track, featuring M.I.A. I listened to the track with my team and we were immediately hooked. A couple of weeks ago I met Ben in Paris to do the editing with Walter Mauriot.

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL

Gener8ion: I think (the film) is a good metaphor for the message M.I.A. is communicating in the song. One of the main focuses of the documentary is showing the personalities of the individuals embedded in this giant group (there are currently 36,000 students enrolled at the school). It shows the feeling of those little girls training in the biggest kung fu school in China, how they develop their identities in that kind of strict environment and manage to stay human.

EMBRACE YOUR INNER WARRIOR

Inigo Westmeier: The school shows the training exercise (at the start of the video) every time there are government officials visiting. Experiencing it was fascinating. I mean, I knew that they were coming at us, but when they actually came running towards us, the whole crew was just blown away... (The girl who gives the swordplay demonstration), Xin Chenxi, was really impressive. I cast her upon my first visit when doing research and I knew back then that she would be perfect for the film. We were in sub-zero temperatures, it was bitterly cold, and she had those pink ear warmers and a huge sword in her hand...

 

TAKE CONTROL

Inigo Westmeier: M.I.A. seems quite critical of today’s society. I believe it’s two things that matter to her which Ben wanted to reflect when selecting the video. On the one hand, it’s about monitoring and control and the resulting lack of privacy – and it doesn’t matter if that is rooted in the logic of the digital evolution or if it’s imposed by some sort of organised structure. The other side is Surkin’s understanding of how the story, the struggle and efforts of these three girls, fits M.I.A. and her support for women’s and girl’s rights. The documentary looks behind the facade of the masses, and dives into the individual stories of the girls. It takes you on a trip to a world unknown to most of us. As with many of my films, I like to create a momentum where the spectators can and should decide for themselves how they judge what they see. The pictures, the faces and sounds speak for themselves. This, to me, is a beautiful way to tell stories: without judgment.

 

MAKE YOUR OWN AESTHETIC

The New International Sound is a reference to (Italian designer and architect) Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis Group. They made a book I love called The New International Style. They named it like this to mark their opposition to the very strict and regulated international style movement. It echoes pretty well what I’m trying to do in music, embracing stadium aesthetics and playing with pop and mainstream codes in a world where the underground is getting more and more serious and reactionary. And the project itself is very international, the people involved, the logo, the music, the influences. The main theme of the track follows an Arabic scale, and there are Bulgarian harmonies on the last part that reference a Japanese anime theme built on the same kind of harmonies. The logo, designed by David Rudnick, is a mix between occidental and Japanese typography.

Gener8ion’s ‘The New International Sound (Part II)’ EP is available now through Bromance Records