Air India 182 and the beauty of Hot Docs


Last night, I dragged myself to Toronto’s Elgin Winter Garden theatre to watch Sturla Gunnarson’s Air India 182, the second of two opening night films at Hot Docs. I say “dragged” only because I’d already seen the film once on a rough DVD version. I didn’t need to see it again. But I felt compelled to. Although Gunnarson’s feature documentary on the 1985 Air India terrorist bombing was made for television—the CBC will air it commercial-free on June 22, the anniversary of the flight’s departure—it has a theatrical power. I wanted to see it on the screen, with an audience. And I knew this premiere would be an emotionally charged event. Gunnarson interviewed 14 close relatives of the victims, and a number of them would be at Winter Garden theatre.

The theatre was packed. And the tension in the crowd was palpable. I took a seat beside three men wearing turbans, and wondered how casual or intimate their connection might be. Many in the audience were of South Asian descent. When I talked to Gunnarson a few days earlier, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 200 or 300 people in the room that are connected to the tragedy, because the circumference of the bomb is so vast.”

Speaking directly to camera, Gunnarson’s interview subjects told heart-breaking stories, from memories still etched clearly in their minds 23 years later. Stories of  seeing their relatives off at the airport and sensing there something wrong. Stories of identifying bodies that were pulled out of the sea off the Irish coast. “I was able to identify my sister,” says one woman. “It didn’t look like my sister—her face was flattened, her nose was gone—but she had a particular way of wearing her eyeliner.” (Of the 329 victims, only  131 bodies were recovered, which made  her one of the “lucky” ones.) Deepened with the passage of the time,  relatives’ testimony loses none of its immediacy but gains a profound depth of reflection. “If I lose my husband, am I still a wife? If I lose my children, am I still a mother?” asks Lata Pada, whose lost her husband and two daughters.

Equally eloquent are the memories of those less intimately involved, such as a helicopter pilot who set out on adventure to rescue survivors and realized he was on a recovery mission. Or a merchant seaman who helped recover the bodies, and recall being shattered by the incongrous presence of a cold, lifeless but otherwise perfect infant on the deck of a ship. Or the former check-in employee with the airline unable to forget the business class passenger who convinced her to route a suitcase  all the way to India, the suitcase that contained the bomb. Or the baggage handler who remembers the X-ray machine breaking down the day the bag was loaded onto the flight. And the beep of a security wand that was ignored as a bag was sent through.

With a trail of coincidence to match the trail of conspiracy, Air India 182 becomes a story of both politics and fate.

Last night’s premiere had the weight of a dignfied and long-overdue memorial. Before it was over, the tense hush of the audience gradually gave way to the soft sound of choked-back tears. But despite the horrific facts of the event it explores, Gunnarson’s film is never lurid or maudlin. The film’s memorial tone is balanced by a fierce investigative mandate. And Gunnarson’s interviews with retired CSIS and RCMP investigators, speaking out against the orders of the Justice Department, create a compelling procedural dimension.

Underlying the whole piece is a finely distilled sense of outrage. It has, after all, taken a filmmaker to honour the victims of a tragedy that he feels has never been given its proper place “in the Canadian narrative.”  As the director pointed out in a Q & A after the screening,  the majority of the victims on that plane were Canadians, but you would never have known it by the national response. If they had been blond-haired, blue-eyed Canadians, he said, Parliament would have talked about nothing else for weeks—this coming from a blond, blue-eyed Canadian who’s married to a woman from a Sikh family, the film’s associate producer, Judy Koonar.

Gunnarson, who has jockeyed between drama and documentary in his career,  is one of Canada’s most accomplished, most consistent, and most underrated filmmakers. With Air India 182, he combines pure documentary with eloquent scenes of dramatic re-enactment. And this film, which took just one year from conception to premiere, may be the finest and most important of his career. It pushes the frontiers of non-fiction with a veracity and power on a par with movies like  United 93, A Mighty Heart—and Standard Operating Procedure, the Errol Morris film about Abu Ghraib, which is also being shown in Hot Docs.

Like Morris, Gunnarson uses stark, confessional direct-to-camera interviews. And he makes creative use of re-enactments, but in a radically different style. Morris fetishes the unknowable with impressionist, slo-mo images that verge on abstraction. Gunnarson’s are chaotic snatches of verité realism. But he too finds a poetic beauty and glimmers of transcendence in imagining what might have unfolded, and portraying a life that is about to be lost.

I’m glad I saw Air India 182 in a theatre. What’s wonderful about Hot Docs is that, even if virtually all of its entires are shot on digital video and designed for TV, it is a film festival. And it’s good to be reminded of the power a cinematic documentary can have as it plays on a large screen in front of an audience that is dying to see it.

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Air India 182 and the beauty of Hot Docs

  1. While the documentary exposes the conspiracy by the extremists, it is very biased version not telling the story behind sikhs went through. You wouldn’t hear anything about 10,000 sikhs who were butchered and burnt alive on the streets of New Delhi by Hindu mobs in 1984. You wouln’t hear anything on the CBC about the human rights violations against the sikhs by the Indian government. WHile I believe that people responsible for the tragedy should be brought to justice, it is funny how everyone is talking about victims being Canadian now as the goven’t didn’t do anything at the time becuase they were all immigrants. Even one of the reports described the poor response by the Canadian gov’t due to racism.
    One thing everyone should not forget is that there is no support in Sikh community for any extremists. We have left that dark chapter behind us but CBC is trying to dig up the graves and stir a rift between Hindus and sikhs who are living peacefully in Canada and India

  2. As I Sikh I find this documentary to be very biased. I have no problem with CBC exposing the people who are responsible for the tragedy. I wish they hang the people resposible for it but CBC is not showing what Sikhs have been through in their own country. There were thousands of innocent sikhs who died during those years in the hands of Indian Government. The Indian Government did not catch one single person responsible for the massacre of sikhs in 1984. 10,000 sikhs were slaughtered in the streets of New Delhi by Hindus. NO WORD ON THAT ON ANY CBC DOCUMENTARY.
    Another preversion by left wing network CBC

  3. Herman and Parm: From Brian’s description, it would seem that the film is about the after effects of the blast i.e. the effect on those who lost family or were otherwise connected to the flight, and on the investigation afterwards.
    The events in India are irrelevant to that, unless one believes that they serve somehow as a justification for this attack. As an aside, I can just imagine the narrative for that approach: “I was able to identify my sister…. her face was flattened and her nose was missing. Of course, a bunch of Hindus halfway across the world killed a bunch of Sikhs, so we have to put my loss in perspective….”
    Also, as the documentary has not yet aired on the CBC, one must wonder if either of you have seen the film in question, or if your strikingly similar complaints are part of an organized campaign?

  4. Ah, sorry – didn’t see that this was old post, and that the documentary has already aired. My point still stands however.

  5. The documentary provided no new revelations or facts and merely repeat the worn-out Pravda-type pro-Brahminist insinuations that the Sikhs have been bombarded with over the past 25 years. The Sikh viewpoint and counter-theories were not even mentioned and no context and background was given for the events such as:
     the political and economic repression of the Sikhs by the Brahminist regime in India including diverting Punjab rivers to non-riparian states, division of the former Punjab into 3 states in 1967, looting of Punjab’s green-revolution wealth by price fixing 50% below international prices, denial of Punjabi as a state language, and attack on 38 Sikh shrines including the Golden Temple in June 1984
     the murder of over 5,000 Sikh civilians by the Brahminist regime in the capital city of Delhi alone in 1984 (organized and lead by Congress MPs such as Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Kamal Nath while the police assisted the Hindu mobs and the army remained in their barracks for three days)
     the massacre of over 250,000 Sikhs by the Indian army between 1984-93 sent in by Indira Gandhi to supposedly chase down “300 Sikh militants” (Indian Parliamentary Hansard, 1984)

  6. Mark,
    I don’t think any sikh is suggesting that it was justified to kill innocent people. It seems like you have no clue about the past history of sikhs. A large number of people here in west look at the turban and assume sikhs to be muslims so it doesn’t matter to look at their history. I was in Mesa, Arizona after 9/11 when the first victim fell of Backlash fell to the bullets of the American .He wasn’t a muslim, he was a sikh. The person who shot him didn’t even know the difference between sikh and a muslim. I feel sorry for the ignorance that exists amony many people here.
    Irish people have been bombing for years. I know many people who are Irish and are proud of their Irish background and many justify a lot of stuff that went around. Why don’t you call them terrorism or the term “terrorism” only applies to certain races.
    Before you pass judgement on whole community you should ask yourself these questions.
    – Are there any sikh terrorists involved in any terrorist activity in the past 20 years ?
    – Are there any terrorist incidents that happenned in the past 20 years in canada where any sikh was involved ?

    THE ANSWER IS NONE……so keep beating the dead donkey.

  7. The main thrust of these criticisms is that the film does not contextualize the Air India bombings in relation to the persecution of Sikhs in India or that it fails to address so-called counter-theories about the events themselves. With regards to the first point, the film specifically references the assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar as the event that crystallized sentiments in the Sikh diaspora and quite possibly led to the bombings. However, it quite deliberately does not justify the murder of 331 innocent men, women and children as a legitimate response to injustices perpetrated by the government of India. With regards to the so-called counter theories, the film rejects them. Our point of view is based on the findings of judge Josephson who concluded that the bombings were the result of a conspiracy by the Vancouver-based Babbar Khalsa. Though there was insufficient evidence to convict Malik or Bagri, there was ample evidence, uncontested by the defense team, to reach this conclusion. It's tragic that some people judge all Sikhs on the basis of the actions of a tiny group of ideologues who pervert the Sikh faith to justify mass murder. Those who continue to defend the actions of the Air India perpetrators or obfuscate them with conspiracy theories only stoke those fires of intolerance.

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