This patchwork documentary doesn’t always keep its bearings, but overall it’s a fascinating overview of the complicated life of musician M.I.A. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

What happens when a woman of two worlds tries to be taken seriously as both artist and mission-driven advocate?

For U.K.-born-and-raised musician Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam — better known as rapper M.I.A., 43, of Sri Lankan Tamil descent — the answer is mixed success at best. The unusual but revealing documentary “Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.,” a hodgepodge of old video diaries, music videos, performances and interviews spanning decades, reflects  M.I.A.’s passionate efforts to enlighten fans about victims of government oppression — while also getting people around the world dancing to her music.

“Matangi” demonstrates how this once-impoverished daughter of a Tamil Tigers insurgent has tried to be taken seriously as both artistic innovator and self-appointed spokeswoman for rebels in Sri Lanka. Explaining that before her recording career started in 2002, she wanted to be a documentary maker, we see how M.I.A. came to have hours of archival video of herself and family, going back to her childhood.

Drawing from that wealth of material and adding much more is director Steve Loveridge, who captures M.I.A.’s triumphant, international rise as a producer and performer, blending infectious beats, world music, dance and politics into something compelling. Loveridge doesn’t dwell on her many honors (Grammy and Oscar nominations; Time magazine’s Influential People list). But while M.I.A. seems comfortable with success, she makes far less headway being taken seriously as champion of a cause.

During an interview on his HBO program, “Real Time,” Bill Maher patronizes her by skirting issues and joking about her accent. Her red-carpet comments at a Grammy ceremony are cut when she becomes serious.

But the reverse in true, too. Both M.I.A.’s family and other Sri Lankans wave her off for being an unrealistic poseur who doesn’t know the score. At one point, during a brief trip to Sri Lanka, she is shocked when groped by a soldier on a bus — an everyday occurrence there that she is advised to endure in order to stay alive.

The patchwork nature of “Matangi” makes the film a bit of a slog at times, and there are certainly scenes where a viewer is grasping for context. But it is fascinating to watch M.I.A. develop into middle-age as, inevitably, the sum of her own best efforts.


★★★ “Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.,” a documentary directed by Steve Loveridge. 94 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens Oct. 5 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.