UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar.
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, Vancouvers Orpheum Theatre doubles for
Canadas 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.
Its 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
Though wearing a producers 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
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 couldnt 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 peoples
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 Svendsens thoughts
and it is surely more than chance that took her and the story
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
We are living in a very curious time.
Third World weaves together six characters whose stories
intersect on the front lines of the worlds 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 DaVincis 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 countrys 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.