Human Cargo is a miniseries that ran on Canadian television in 2004. Directed by Brad Turner, who has worked extensively in both television (24, La Femme Nikita) and features (Species III), it was serialized in six episodes, each clocking in at just over forty-minutes in length. An ambitious undertaking, it spans several countries and two continents, and was shot on location in South Africa and Vancouver B.C.
The show opens on election night in Vancouver. Right-wing politician Nina Wade (Kate Nelligan, The Cider House Rules) is losing her government seat to an opponent of Indian heritage, while at the same time, a suspicious looking truck is pulled over at the border. Inside is a lone survivor among a pile of dead bodies. It's a smuggling operation gone wrong, and the remaining traveler, Naila (Myriam Acharki) is an Afghani refugee who had been traveling with her husband. The authorities are not sure if they should believe Naila's claims, because the couple were the only Afghanis in a group of Hondurans. It's believed her and her husband may be terrorists.
Crusading immigration lawyer Jery Fisher (Nicholas Campbell, Da Vinci's Inquest) catches wind of Naila's case and immediately signs up to aid her in petitioning the Canadian government for refugee status. He's the kind of man who lives for his work, and he can't turn away from the good fight, even when it's destroying his family. Some of his clients are questionable, including one man who definitely has underworld connections and may have even had a hand in organizing the border crossing that Naila was part of. Fisher is soon going to cross paths with Nina, who has now been kicked over to the Refugee Board as a judge. It's an ironic punishment, as her concession speech was little more than a racist rant against the changing face of the Canadian citizenry. In addition to alienating her constituents, Nina also alienated her daughter, Helen (Cara Pifko, This is Wonderland). As retribution, Helen signs on for aid work in Burundi.
You keeping up? Because this only just gets us to the topic of South Africa, and we're still pretty much covering the first episode. While all of these elements are being spooled out in Vancouver, Turner and writers Brian Mckeown and Linda Svendsen have also been setting up another story line on the other side of the world.
In a small African village, ordinary citizens are trying to survive in the midst of a civil war where two ethnic factions fight each other for supremacy while making life difficult on everyone else. Moses Buntu (Bayo Akinfemi, Bulletproof Monk) is Hutu, but he tries to remain apolitical. He's a schoolteacher, and he just wants to protect the children. Also, his sister Odette (Nthati Moshesh, Cape of Good Hope) has married a Tutsi, so there is good reason for Moses to get along with the other side. When Hutu rebels attack his schoolhouse to kidnap boys for their army, Moses stands up to them to protect his nephew (Wright Ngubane, Duma). This makes him a marked man, and so he goes on the run, only to soon crash into Tutsi rebels. Now an enemy of both camps, there's not much he can do when the Tutsi army raids his village. He and his brother-in-law (Hakeem Kae-Kazim, the Librarian series) are carted off to a foreign-owned gold mine where they will be forced into labor.
Odette manages to save her son from suffering the same fate, and she and her three children end up on the refugee road, leading them right to the same aid camp as Helen Wade. Odette is easily the most admirable character in the series. She will do anything to protect her kids, and the strength she shows in the face of some truly terrible circumstances is tremendous. Her main goal is to keep her son from being kidnapped into a rebel army, a mission that increasingly gets more and more impossible. Moshesh is excellently cast in the role, bringing Odette's stoic endurance to life.
The hardest character to stomach, on the other hand, is Helen, who comes off as even worse than her busybody mother. Helen's a spoiled brat trying to pretend she's a do-gooder, and her actions usually end up having disastrous results. I assume we were meant to find her sympathetic, but it seemed like she never learned anything from the consequences of her stubbornness. Her resolution at the end of the series is also overly dramatic, and even though it may be perfectly possible that her life would turn out the way it did, it feels like the filmmakers were overdoing it a bit.
Which ends up being a small complaint, since the other plotlines are all generally pretty good. Over the six episodes, all the various pieces move closer together, until finally they converge. Moses escapes from his captors and works a risky path to Canada, where Jery Fisher will be his lawyer and Nina Wade his judge. His story will have the biggest effect on the outcome of Human Cargo, because what he witnessed has repercussions in the Canadian community. Conversely, there is a frustrating lack of resolution to Naila's story. Throughout the miniseries, we are never quite sure what her motivations are, though we can be pretty sure that she's not as innocent as she claims. She connects with another Afghani immigrant, a cab driver Ahmed (Sam Kalilieh, host of Canadian gameshow "Inside the Box). He's her real husband, and when he's picked up for suspected terrorism, major issues are raised about how North American governmental bodies treat detainees in these kinds of situations.
All in all, Human Cargo makes for good drama. Its attempt to show a complex problem from all levels of the issue, crossing boundaries of race and economic status, reminded me of the original BBC version of Traffik. As I noted, however, there are some dangling plot threads when the show wraps up, and I think maybe the filmmakers bit off a little more than they could chew. There is too much to be covered in so short of a space. I realize the immigration problems Human Cargo broaches are far too complex to tie up completely, but I'm not even really looking for that. In fact, I am a little resentful of some of the ways they do try to put a bow on a couple of the stories, particularly in the warm and fuzzy final scenes. I don't really know what to suggest as a better alternative, I just know that for the most part, the conclusion of Human Cargo didn't quite hit it.
That aside, it's still a well-done series with good, issue-driven writing and involving characters. I watched most of the episodes in one sitting and didn't get the urge to change to something else or pause. For the few hours you invest in Human Cargo, you will be fully into it.
NOTE: This DVD is a Canadian release and may not be available at some U.S. retailers.
The letterbox transfer for Human Cargo was really clean, maintaining the production values as intended.
A good 5.1 sound mix. There are no spectacular effects, but no noticeable errors, either.
Episodes 1 and 5 have commentary tracks by the director, Brad Turner. He talks in detail about the construction of the series and the pressures of a very fast production that was shot in two separate countries. Most of the material covered is technical, such as the choice of actors and the use of locations, but he also talks about the research and real-life inspiration for some of the political issues in Human Cargo.
Rent It. Human Cargo is a strong television drama that raises a lot of issues and draws viewers in with fully realized characters. Though the ending kind of fizzles out, the multi-leveled story line is involving up until that point, showing the various levels of the immigration problem, exploring how and why people move across the world and what happens to them when they get to what they believe will be a safe haven. So, even with its failings, Human Cargo provides bracing entertainment, and it's definitely worth at least one showing.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.