Isaac Matui Miles Thomas better known under the pen name MI Thomas is a Nigerian Writer and Filmmaker. Born on October 3rd, 1990 in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria, Thomas graduated from the University of Maiduguri in 2013 with a B.A. (Hons) in Mass Communication and had brief stints as the editor for online publication TrendingAfrique as well as monthly travelogue magazine City Guide in Lagos, Nigeria. His writing credits include crime thriller, Secrets published by John Publishing House, Abuja and Maiduguri: The Untold Stories. One unpublished work is Milestones: Memoirs of Service Years. He has also written over 1000 poems, dozens of scripts for screen and television including the screen adaptation of The Passport of Mallam Ilia by Cyprian Ekwensi currently in production by Magic Carpet Studios. Thomas currently serves as Head of Story for Magic Carpet Studios and lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
LitVo: Good day Sir, my name is Haneefah AbdulRahman. We are ecstatic to have you here with us on Literature Voices. Pls, could you let us know you?
MI Thomas: I’m MI Thomas, a storyteller for film and television. I currently work for Magic Carpet Studios, an animation studio based in Lagos, Nigeria.
LitVo: “A life without stories to tell is a world without water”, How do you justify this statement?
MI Thomas: Life itself is one long story, and throughout history, people have used stories to successfully wade through difficult times and rediscover their purpose. Stories, whether ours as told by us or those of others, offer us a release, some sort and without them, a lot of things would not hold any meaning to us- humans.
LitVo: Writers of scripts are hardly known in movies. What can you say about the global movie industry’s dependence on writers?
MI Thomas: As it is with nearly every sector, the guys behind the camera don’t get the mentions they deserve. In fact, you hardly know them unless their work is that exceptional. Besides who cares about some fellow who eats and sleeps with words and scenarios when the glamourous actors are out there? It could also be a matter of choice. Personally, I don’t enjoy the spotlight on me and I know a lot of seasoned writers, legendary writers who work hard to stay off any mentions unless unavoidably necessary.
Concerning the question of dependence on writers, I don’t honestly think there is so much dependence on writers per se. When we say script/screenwriters we are talking about professionals who write in the format for film. Frankly, anybody can do that. There is a difference between storytellers and scriptwriters, as you don’t write a story from a script but a script from a story. These days’ directors write their own stories because conventional scriptwriting is being ditched. A lot of films are being developed from storyboards crafted from stories written in formats other than scripts. So as much as writers for the film are important, the one group really being heavily dependent on are storytellers. It is difficult to tell a story that creates impact and if you are skilled in doing that, no matter how brilliantly written that script is, it won’t pack a punch.
LitVo: How did animation come to be? Animated movies are seldom in the Nigerian movie industry. What do you think is the cause of it?
MI Thomas: Animation has been around since the 1930s with Walt Disney in the US, a long history with loads of beautiful iconic portions. It is the same with Japan and its unique anime-styled animation industry that is on an equal footing with that of Hollywood.
It is not the same in Nigeria for a couple of reasons. First, there is a blatant lack of understanding of the medium of animation. Because people don’t understand it, they also don’t understand what it takes in making it, from skills to resources. It is considered to be for children and that’s all. When you tell someone you’re making an animated picture, they go, “oh you are doing a cartoon,” and go on assuming it doesn’t take anything special to do that.
Second, in Nollywood, aside from the funding challenge (animation is very expensive), which is a really big problem; there’s an inherent lack of patience and discipline necessary to make an animated film. You could spend five to ten years making one animated film, or as much as three months making a 5minutes-long short film. Not very many people would do that. In Nollywood, five years is enough to make ten movies.
Third, there are very few skilled animators in Nigeria. Because it doesn’t pay around here, animators and other people involved in animation filmmaking such as voice acting coaches, just move abroad and work there. This is a huge problem because at the moment you don’t have up to a hundred skilled 2D animators for instance, in the entire country.
LitVo: As a man who works around the world with so many people, and both gender, what can you say about “Feminism and Womanism” in art? Has your work ever taken you to ponder over the upsurge in the rebellion of the female gender against the male? What could be responsible?
MI Thomas: There are several things I don’t pay attention to; one of them is this labelling thing going on- feminist, womanist or whatever it is going on these days. Skills, personality and dedication come top when dealing with people. I keep politics away from my art.
LitVo: How many countries and peoples have you explored in your filmmaking journey? What exactly did you go to do?
MI Thomas: I have been to a couple of places in Africa, mostly- mainly for research and also to attend film festivals. For instance, the Zanzibar and Durban international film festivals in Tanzania and South Africa respectively are two very popular film festivals that take place each year showcasing the brilliance of African storytelling from movies to documentaries and so on.
Mali isn’t exactly on this list as with Namibia because it didn’t yield much. There is this plan to do a story about a Malian (can’t disclose the name) and the need to experience the culture and environment arose. I would definitely be returning when the coast is clear. As for Namibia, there is a pact with the Namibian film commission and Magic Carpet Studios to train animators and screenwriters meaning there is going to be a lot of travelling to Namibia in the coming years.
There is also the Annecy Festival in France. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend in person this year same with DSICOP in Johannesburg South Africa as a result of the outbreak of the Coronavirus.
LitVo: We see how Northern Nigerian society despises the movie industry yet they watch them. What is at play here? What’s the role of film in cultural and religious appropriation?
MI Thomas: This could just be a wrong impression that anything is despised in the North that ought not to. I don’t understand when people say that. There are tons of talents in the entertainment industry in the North also known as Kannywood and they cross to this side in Nollywood in the south for several projects. These same projects are screened in Kano (for instance) in the theatres and people come out to see them. If a group of people, and there would always be this small group, dislike them, fine. Not everyone is going to like them, but when it is being mentioned as if it were some widely held position, I don’t understand it.
A film like the media plays a great role in enlightening people about several things, and frankly, that’s a subject for academic research. I don’t have the facts to discuss it.
LitVo: You are the head of story for Magic Carpet Studio. What do you do as the head? How far has your work taken you in realizing what Nigeria lacks and how your stories or movies have helped in removing them?
MI Thomas: Primarily, I’m the gatekeeper. Meaning I’m responsible for overseeing a wide range of activities around story development, writing the story, developing the story, determining the medium (2D, 3D, Stop-motion) and writing the script whether through storyboards or conventional screenplays. I also teach storytelling and writing in the training arm of the department via a series of masterclasses and online platforms such as Ultra, online schools run by Imaginarium Creative, the parent company to Magic carpet studios. The masterclasses are always in collaboration with seasoned storytellers mostly from reputable institutions outside of the country such as the Vancouver Animation School, a long-time partner to Magic carpet Studios.
When you look at the kind of stories that make it out to Nollywood films you might realize that a majority of them are purely commercial. Easy to write, easy to produce and presented to appeal to everyone. Hardly do you identify filmmakers in Nigeria by genres and a distinct style of storytelling as you have in Ghana or South Africa or elsewhere. That discipline isn’t there. Very few films around here have managed to set an agenda for discussion, influence social thinking or address some very important challenges. We just make films with trends and glamour and that’s all.
The bottom line, however, we need to do better in developing stories thoroughly before telling them. Personally, I’m doing a lot of learning every day to improve on my understanding of the craft and help others who are willing to do things differently do that. And it takes more than being able to write and format with software to be able to tell a compelling story. That’s something writers and storytellers ought to know.
LitVo: Nigerians are talented but are unable to explore their talents for nation-building especially in the movie industry and technology, which is caused by the absence of systems and institutions thus pushing them to go outside the country for greener pastures. How can this problem be tackled holistically?
MI Thomas: It is absolutely true that there is little to no structure that works in the film industry. The current set up which includes the lack of a writers’ guild for instance is crude and subjects amazingly talented people to cruel treatments of their gift. In time they get frustrated and either adjust or leave. This has got to change.
However, it is not that simple. You can have all the Guilds and unions and still not make much progress. This is because you can’t order discipline and magically influence the psychology of priority. People in the industry have to decide to do better. We have access to the same technology that is in South Africa, Egypt and Kenya but they make better pictures than us. Why? Their approach is different; they take their time and do all it takes. We don’t.
LitVo: One of the top projects you are working on is the 2D animation of Cyprian Ekwensi’s “The Passport of Mallam Ilia”, what led to this? How do you and your team intend to make it acceptable to the global audience? Is it a self-imposed adventure or a commissioned work? Do you have any doubt about the success of the project?
MI Thomas: The Passport of Mallam Ilia 2D film adaptation is going to be the first of its kind by an African studio, first off. It could have been any story really but Magic Carpet Studios chose this because of the richness of the story covering the themes of love, conquest and vengeance. This is pre-colonial and early colonial days of Northern Nigeria and the very foundations of Northern civilization are presented in its beauty and glory. Several scholars from around the world have documented the history of Northern Nigeria over several decades and these have become subjects of documentaries and a large body of academic research. It is not much different from what we are doing; it is just through a different medium.
It is a studio project financed by several individual investors within and outside the country. It is also of interest to Netflix and currently, there are conversations at an advanced level for a pre-sale going on.
This project is a statement of African storytelling in the medium of animation. It is unlike anything done or seen before coming out from Nigeria. I have absolutely no doubt it is going to be groundbreaking.
LitVo: Cyprian Ekwensi is less celebrated than his contemporaries despite having more books than them. How do you explain this oddity?
MI Thomas: I can’t explain it. It could be a matter of personal preference or because the subjects he chose to dwell on in his stories did not touch on political and racial issues amongst others as the others such as Achebe did.
LitVo: Another Magic Carpet Project that is going to be an animated sitcom is “Meet the Igwes”, which sounds cultural. What is that about?
MI Thomas: Meet the Igwes is a sitcom set in the fictional neighbourhood of Saro. The series is a satirical depiction of everyday urban life epitomized by the Igwe family, a typical middle-class Nigerian family, which consists of Modestus, Esther, Ada, Julius and Jay-Jay. The show mirrors life in a Nigerian community and the human condition.
It takes a social commentary approach in each episode, tackling issues such as social stratification, the culture of exploitation, the role of education, charity, the role of the family in modern societies and more.
LitVo: What’s the function of animation in cultural production, it may not appeal to the majority of the audience?
MI Thomas: Animation has an unbelievably massive appeal on a global scale. For instance, some of the most iconic characters in the history of film and television are animated characters. I’m talking about Homer Simpson (from Simpsons), Bugs Bunny (Looney Tunes), Tom and Jerry, Bart Simpson (Simpsons) amongst others. Superman and Batman for instance first appeared as animated characters before growing to become the figures film has made them into today. If you look at the cultural influence of animation, you would see how much relevance it has and always would.
LitVo: You have worked with Hollywood before, what was it like? If you were asked to choose which to work with permanently, Hollywood or Nollywood, which will you choose and why?
MI Thomas: I’m still very much working my way into Hollywood; it’s such a long shot but very much worth it. It is an industry with structure and coordination and understanding of each person’s role. I tell you the truth, nobody would choose the opposite. It’s not that difficult to see. But I would always choose Nollywood, that’s why I’m here. That’s why I haven’t left to permanently work for Fox animation or Cartoon Saloon in Ireland despite my relationship with them. I believe I have a duty to tell African stories in the manner that should be, with an African voice.
LitVo: You published a thriller some time ago, tell us about it and its reach?
MI Thomas: ‘Secrets’ is a combination of politics, intelligence and espionage involving people with long life history who at some point must choose what matters, family or the state? It was originally conceived as a plot for a feature film set in the future with very advanced technology in use in the Nigerian intelligence service. But the possibility of ever making a motion picture of it was next to zero and I decided to write a novella that could be adapted for screen someday.
It was my first publication and I believed I made mistakes especially with the publishing deal. Although I have a few copies with me, I can’t distribute them because of the ongoing dispute between me and the publisher. Hopefully, it ends and I get to work with another publisher or self-publish and share this story with the world.
LitVo: What can you make out of American and Nigerian Literature when it comes to their beauty and ugliness and their relationship with the movie industry?
MI Thomas: Art is subjective. What doesn’t work for me might do for another reader so I don’t something is bad unless it’s badly written.
Hollywood heavily depends on American literature. Nearly all the greatest pictures ever made in Hollywood are adaptations of books, articles and poems (for instance Oscar best animated short by Kobe Bryant “Dear Basketball”). Big studios don’t do a lot of original stories as opposed to what takes place in Nollywood.
Although Nigerian literature is as amazing as you could ever dream of, the film industry hasn’t tapped into 10% of it. No major motion picture of global scale is based on any critically acclaimed work of literature.
Personally, keeping my personal preferences aside, Nigerian literature is brilliant. Stories here are told as they are. Nobody is concerned with a “Happily ever after” ending as American writers are or do so much of world creation in fantasies and all that. Here are stories that are consistent with the realities out there and capture human complexities in a much truer way than American literature does.
LitVo: How much have you helped your country with your talent? How much have you sacrificed for her? And how have you or do you intend to help Nollywood upgrade her status in animation?
MI Thomas: Two projects I’m heavily involved in The Passport of Mallam Ilia (as Co-writer, Co-Producer and Production Manager) and Meet the Igwes (Show runner) represents the birth of a new era for animation in Nigeria. For the first time, we are going to have a cinema picture that would screen globally by a Nigerian studio and have a television series that is animated produced exclusively in Nigeria. I don’t see another way of contributing to the industry more than this.
LitVo: When do you think you will reach your peak? Where will that peak be?
MI Thomas: It is not so much of this for me. There is no level of success or achievement I count as a peak. I would simply continue to tell stories until I can’t in different voices for different times.
LitVo: Did you, in the past, see all these achievements you have attained coming? Did you set out early towards film production or it was a later day decision?
MI Thomas: I don’t think I have achieved anything significant yet, in all honesty. Maybe when I ignite the flames that begin the much-needed revolution the industry needs especially with regards to storytelling then we would talk about achievements.
I have always wanted to tell stories. I have done this from a very early age doing stage plays and all that to making shorts while in the university. I could have gone on to do just stage plays but the breakthrough in technology with the coming of digital cameras and platforms such as YouTube did influence my decision to stay in film and television.
LitVo: Thank you.
MI Thomas: Pleasure is mine.
Haneefah Abdulrahman is a writer, poet, spoken poetry artiste, interviewer and a podcaster. Born in Kaduna, Haneefah is an indigene of Kogi State. She is a fellow of Ebedi International Writers’Residency. She is the Chairperson of Kaduna Branch, Hilltop Creative Arts Foundation, 2020/2021 Financial Secretary and editor of the Creative Writers Club, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria – Nigeria, and an Assistant Editor of Literature Voices (LitVo). Haneefah has been published on Daily Trust, Nigerian Review, Wisprout Project and in many other journals (Both international and national).She was shortlisted as one of the 30 Contemporary Women Poets to read by Poetry Column-NND in Nigerian News Direct. She is YELF ARTIST OF THE MONTH. November Edition 2020. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, IG: neefahwords, Facebook: Haneefah Abdulrahman, Twitter: neefahwords_, Tiktok: neefahwords, Blog: trendyneefah.blogspot.com