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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2003

New $9-Million CBC Mini-Series Driven by UBC Talent

Dramatic thriller probes the post-9/11 world of refugees

By Erica Smishek

On this day, Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre doubles for Canada’s Parliament Buildings. Cables, lights, aluminum stands and frames, and assorted other gear line the foyer. Background performers wait in the theatre, their “holding” area, for their call. In a red-carpeted hall upstairs, well-known Canadian actors Kate Nelligan and R.H. Thompson work with director Brad Turner to nail their lines.

Combining creativity and the tight protocols of a military operation, this is Day 23 of shooting for Third World, a $9-million, six-hour mini-series for CBC, and UBC creative writing Assoc. Prof. Linda Svendsen is right in the thick of the action.

“It’s great to be behind the scenes and be part of the process,” says Svendsen, who co-wrote the script with her partner, Brian McKeown, and is also co-producing. “Seeing people do their jobs is fascinating -- the cast, the director, the grips, even locations. When I saw the house we used for Nina [Nelligan]’s house, I felt like I was getting married. It was all so perfect. I went back after we struck the set to just walk through, I was so moved by it.”

Though wearing a producer’s hat for the first time, Svendsen is no stranger to film and television. In New York in the early 1980s, this UBC alumna worked as a freelance story analyst at Tri-Star Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn and adapted a short story for CBC. She has written extensively for the screen ever since; credits include The Diviners, At the End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story and These Arms of Mine.

Svendsen is also an acclaimed fiction writer and has taught in the creative writing program at UBC since 1989.

Third World is billed as an unflinching look at the post-9/11 world of refugees and the people who sacrifice their lives to help -- or hinder -- them. Production includes 35 shooting days in Vancouver and 20 days in Port St. John, South Africa. Svendsen, McKeown and their two young children will spend two months there this spring.

“It was supposed to be a novel set in the Philippines,” Svendsen says of a project that began more than eight years ago. “Then I got pregnant. Events were unfolding in Rwanda at the time. I saw the documentary, Who Gets In, about the Canadian immigration process. I was just really involved in the issue. I couldn’t travel so I started taking a closer look at the work. I had the main character of Nina, a politician, in my mind. Was it a novel? Was it a movie-of-the-week? Then I started attending refugee hearings and listening to people’s stories first hand.

“We presented our idea to Susan Morgan [head of series] at CBC and she said ‘do it -- but make it bigger. Go somewhere.’ We picked up a globe and put our finger on it and started in Africa.”

During the early stages of development, support from UBC helped fund library acquisitions, office expenses and travel to African refugee camps, a mine and South African locations for research purposes.

The continent is never far from Svendsen’s thoughts and it is surely more than chance that took her and the story there.
“I think about Rwanda and the fact that no one did anything. Romeo Dallaire [former commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda], Stephen Lewis [UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa] -- the work they do amazes me. When Dallaire spoke here last year, he punctuated his speech many times with the tag, ‘are all humans human or are some humans more human than others?’

“We are living in a very curious time.”

Third World weaves together six characters whose stories intersect on the front lines of the world’s refugee crisis. They include an Afghan woman smuggled across the Canadian border in a produce truck; a committed refugee lawyer (played by Nicholas Campbell of DaVinci’s Inquest) involved in her claim; an ambitious right-wing politician (Nelligan) whose racist views enflame her colleagues and the legal community and eventually test the country’s perception of itself; her daughter, a relief agency worker, caught in an ethnic conflict in central Africa; a mother battling shifting hierarchies, disease, starvation and child-soldier recruitment to keep herself and her three young children alive in Africa; and her brother, who endures torture and degradation before escaping and filing a refugee claim in Canada.

“We took six pieces of yellow lined paper,” says Svendsen, who until teaming with McKeown on the project had always written alone. “We laid them out on the table and said ‘here are our characters.’ From there, we developed a pitch document, then a draft, then another and another. I took Nina and the female characters. Brian was with the men. We passed scenes back and forth. Brian had worked at CBC news and has a political background. I tend to deal with structure and be the story editor. His strength is being in the moment with the characters.”

The pair was well into a draft when Sept. 11 changed immigration laws, international relations, the whole refugee system -- and the script.

“In Vancouver alone, there are 160 parts,” Svendsen explains, “with people from very different ethnic backgrounds. There is racism and some tough things in the script. It was very humbling. The performers thanked me for writing this. That has never happened to me before.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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