Fateful flight

The CBC docudrama Air India 182 is a startling reconstruction of a national tragedy

The CBC docudrama Air India 182 is a startling reconstruction of a national tragedy

A scene from the CBC docudrama Air India 182. ((CBC))

This Sunday’s CBC docudrama, Air India 182, offers welcome answers and explanations to the puzzle that remains the worst mass murder and most expensive trial in our nation’s history. Still, many Canadians will likely be dismayed by the implications of Vancouver filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson’s reconstruction of the 1985 aircraft bombing, a terrorist act that left 329 passengers dead, 280 of them Canadian citizens.

Gunnarsson’s film, which airs on June 22 without commercial interruption, offers a vivid reenactment of events leading to the bombing. Amateur actors play the Indian-Canadian families who unknowingly exchange final goodbyes in the Vancouver and Toronto airports. Meanwhile, CSIS and RCMP operatives (also actors) listen in on an evident conspiracy lead by Vancouver Sikh separatists Ripudaman Singh Malik and Talwinder Singh Parmar.

"Have you written the story yet?" one terrorist asks over a bugged telephone.

"The story is written."

"Good."

Then the horrible cycle of events – "a perfect storm of mistakes" in Gunnarson’s words – unfold. A Vancouver Airport ticket taker accepts a suitcase for an unconfirmed passenger, breaking airport policy. The X-ray baggage scanner at Toronto Pearson International Airport malfunctions.

Air India 182 left Montreal 23 years ago Sunday, bound for a connecting flight in Ireland. Before arriving, 9,500 metres above the Atlantic Ocean, the plane disappeared. The film replays its last recorded sound, made as a bomb explodes: a strangled human scream that is soon overwhelmed by a ghastly electronic wail. Next, we watch documentary footage of glum Irish rescue workers pulling lifeless Canadian youngsters from the sea (180 of the dead were children). Gunnarsson then uses contemporary interviews with the families who lost loved ones on Air India 182. The families are dignified, proud, disappointed Canadians. And what they are disappointed in is Canada.

Gunnarsson, whose Punjabi wife, Judy Koonar, is an associate producer on Air India 182, understands why. "There is no question that if that flight had’ve been full of blond, blue-eyed Canadians, Parliament would have raged for weeks. We would have shared the grief of the families. In truth, the loss of hundreds of lives of Canadians had little impact on our psyche.

"The youngest family members were particularly disappointed," Gunnarsson continues. "They’d grown up here. It never occurred to them that they were anything other than normal Canadian kids."

Children run to catch a flight at Vancouver airport in a re-enactment from the film Air India 182. 180 of the passengers killed in the bombing were children. ((CBC) )

Nicola Kelly, who lost her mother on Air India 182, complains that then -prime minister Brain Mulroney offered his condolences to his Indian counterpart, but made no gestures to the Indian-Canadian families devastated by the tragedy. "It’s as if we were never really Canadians," she says in the film.

After identifying her mother’s remains, another bereaved Air India 182 family member returned home from Ireland on July 1, 1985 to a free and easy Canada Day celebration. "She told me she felt that she’d stepped into this weird vacuum," Gunnarsson says. "She felt somehow ashamed. After that, whenever anyone asked about her mother, she said, ‘Oh, she died in an accident.’"

Gunnarsson once felt anger that Canada didn’t make a greater effort to comfort Air India 182 families. But going back in time, talking to the former RCMP and CSIS operatives portrayed in the film, he had a change of heart. "We are a multicultural nation, but 23 years ago, we had a much less sophisticated understanding of the social fabric of the land," he says.

Indeed, the terrorist attack came when Canada was particularly vulnerable. "It’s part of the perfect storm," Gunnarsson sighs. "The Canadian Charter of Rights came into effect in 1985. Our intelligence agency, CSIS, had just been hived off the RCMP. The two agencies hadn’t yet worked out a relationship. Mistakes were made."

One mistake, CSIS’s decision to destroy surveillance tapes of the terrorists’ conversations, contributed to the thwarted Air India investigation and trial, a 20-year, $130-million operation that ended, in 2005, with the co-accused, Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, being found not guilty and released. A third member of the conspiracy, bomb-maker Inderjit Singh Reyat, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a five-year sentence.

Both crown agencies have been accused of bungling the Air India 182 investigation. Gunnarsson is reluctant, however, to join in the criticism of the Canadian justice system.

"The investigators were diligent; they cared," he says. "But you have to appreciate that nothing about a conspiracy is illegal. Unfortunately, you have to let the conspiracy play out. This is the price we pay for our civil liberties.

Inderjit Singh Reyat (Gurpreet Singh Chana) is handed dynamite for an explosives test in Vancouver in the film Air India 182. (CBC) ((CBC))

"Listen, there was a conviction in Canada. A hard-working, Dudley Do-Right type RCMP officer [Doug Henderson] put Inderjit Singh Reyat in jail. His work gave us a wealth of information about the case. Another conspirator, Talwinder Singh Parmar, escaped justice and was brought to India where he was tortured by police for three days and killed. None of the information they got from him is useful. And he is now considered a martyr. What country would you prefer to live in?"

The film only mentions the Air India trial in passing; Gunnarsson felt his obligation as a storyteller lay elsewhere. "It was our duty to bring the story of the Air India families to the mainstream of Canadian consciousness," he says. This the National Film Board-trained filmmaker does with conspicuous artistry. The film’s soundtrack is one example of Gunnarsson’s talent for sifting through decades of documentary evidence to find the essential drama of Air India 182.

"That last sound that comes from Air India 182 – the almost indefinable screech, I hear a voice there; it haunted me," the filmmaker says. "That scream was the starting point for Jonathan Goldsmith’s score, which includes a stretched sample of the pilot’s voice. To achieve a sense of yearning, we added the voices of Tibetan throat singers."

But it is simulated airport scenes where the Air India 182 families say goodbye that will undoubtedly stay with viewers. "That was the film, we had to get that right," Gunnarsson says. "We shot those scenes at [Toronto] Pearson [International Airport]. We’d put out a casting call in the Toronto area. Hundreds of families volunteered.

"The scenes were all shot without a script. I gave actors mechanical directions: ‘Stand there, give your baggage to her, turn and wave goodbye.’ Our mantra was: No acting. ‘Remember,’ I’d say, ‘you don’t know about the bomb. Just smile.’" Many of the actors, along with the families who lost daughters and sons on Air India 182, attended the film’s first public screening at the recent Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. Gunnarsson calls that event the most excruciating two hours of his professional life.

"I’ve had critics not like my work; you get over it," he says. "But I would have been devastated if the families thought we failed. The screening was draining. There was sobbing. In the end, no one left their seats. They couldn’t move. But the families, thank God, approved. Their feeling was: Now people will know what happened to us."

Air India 182 airs June 22 on CBC Television.

Stephen Cole is a writer based in Toronto.