What genre could be more perfect for delivering a message about being wary of our first impressions – and to keep asking questions and listening – than a classic medical drama? For years, medical dramas have been emphasising how important it is to get the whole story, for reminding us that people lie (and explaining why), and telling us that treating people a certain way based on an assumption can be deadly.
In its first action-packed episode, new Universal (DStv 117) medical drama series Transplant sets up both its audience and its characters to jump to all sorts of conclusions. And it uses that to both tell an exciting hospital-based story and to expose our assumptions about immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and refugees.
Transplant’s story puts our brains through a scanner to spot those lurking mental cancers that have taken root through years of dehumanising TV shows and political fearmongering that have linked immigrants – especially darker-skinned immigrants – with terrorism, violent crime and drugs.
The series opens at night in a dingy-looking Syrian restaurant, where a sweaty cook looks shifty as he receives a small, newspaper-wrapped package from a colleague. It’s shot the way that a cop show would shoot a drug deal, or a spy show would film a terrorist cell at work. Both later talk to each other critically about the restaurant’s American-sounding customers’ wasteful habits. The entire introduction is shot to provoke suspicion about the cook and his intentions.
Moments later, everything changes in a shower of glass, flame and noise. Amid the confusion we see the cook desperately trying to save lives. And then, throughout the entire rest of the episode, we have to live through the frustration of having everyone either leaping to conclusions about this man, or refuse to listen to him.
While the end of the first episode sets us up for telling a different, more familiar sort of story about a brilliant doctor and his new hospital colleagues, it also lays the foundations for looking at the struggles of being forced to make a life-or-death decision to leave one life behind and start another in a strange and distant country. A for that package? Watch and find out.
I was a stranger
Transplant is taking its storytelling responsibilities seriously. In fact, the series’ lead, Hamza Haq (who immigrated from Saudi Arabia to Canada with his Pakistani-born parents when he was 9 years old), was initially brought in as a character consultant, to talk to the writing team about his personal experiences being a brown-skinned Muslim man in Canada and facing daily micro-aggressions based on that. “I was probably halfway through that initial meeting when I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I hope that you know that I’m interested [in this role].’ They were very clear about the fact that it was a consultant job and were not offering an acting part,” he admits.
Additionally, the show brought in real-life Syrian refugees to consult on Bash’s backstory and those within his immigrant community in Canada. “They had built a nice pool of about five to six Syrian refugee consultants, whom I had conversations with, and I was given readings and documentaries to watch. I have a dialect coach as well as a personal trainer who are refugees from Aleppo and I talk with them about their experiences,” says Hamza. “Normally, when we see these types of stories on television, they tell them as individuals coming from war-torn countries and the ‘life is so hard’ aspect. But the reality is, they're not sitting around talking about how hard their lives are. They’re just trying to thrive, survive and live like everyone else. It was beautiful to get that perspective because I couldn’t relate to going through anything like that.”
Hamza notes that while basic racial issues they confront might be similar, there are important differences to understand between the experience of a voluntary immigrant, and that of a refugee. “I was never forced to leave – my parents made a calculated decision to move to Canada, whereas Bash sort of landed there and had to figure it out. It's a difference between going skydiving or being thrown out of a plane and having to find your parachute on the way down,” he explains.