Sturla Gunnarsson's powerful film on the Kanishka bombing, Air India 182, premiered at the Hot Docs Festival recently. Vancouver-based Gunnarsson, who is originally from Iceland and whose wife is Punjabi, has put a number of members of the victims' families in front of the camera, sharing their pain and anguish with the viewers.
They never got such a chance earlier, said Gunnarsson, who made the feature based on Rohinton Mistry's book Such a Long Journey, and whose films have won an Oscar nomination, Emmy, Genie and Gemini awards, a Prix Italia, and best film prizes at numerous festivals.
Gunnarsson said he was able to gain 'unprecedented access' to people involved and to key investigators from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In Air India 182, he has used voice tapes of conversations between the Air India flight's cockpit and control towers in Toronto, Montreal and Shannon airport in Ireland. CSIS surveillance video tapes are used too, and it is shown how the surveillance at Babbar Khalsa leader Talwinder Singh Parmar's home was discontinued a couple of days before the Air India tragedy of June 23, 1985.
That surveillance post, it is stated, was dismantled the moment then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi returned to India after his visit to the United States. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation had shared with the Canadian law enforcement agencies intelligence that there could be an attempt on Gandhi's life by Sikh terrorists.
The film shows how Liberal lawmaker Ujjal Dosanjh, who was at the time working as an attorney, was beaten up and left half-dead outside his law office for speaking up against Sikh extremism. He was in hospital for several weeks.
"I took an interest in developments in the Sikh community in Vancouver even before the bombing," Gunnarsson said. "I saw the struggle for the control of the Sikh temple. I saw the importation of a foreign conflict on the Canadian soil. I was also shocked to see that people in the Sikh community in Vancouver -- in my opinion the so-called community leaders -- were all based in the temples. I didn't think they spoke for a majority of people that I knew. I thought it was unusual why people were being beaten up for no reason and nothing was being done about it. So, when the bombing happened, I was horrified, but I wasn't surprised.
"The Canadian authorities," he continued, "were turning a blind eye to that [Sikh extremism] because they didn't want to be accused of meddling in the internal affairs of the Sikh community."
Why a film on Kanishka now? "Over the course of the 20 years of investigations, there were all kinds of conspiracy theories, rumours, there was a mountain of information -- but it was all kind of meaningless information. There was no clear narrative as to what actually happened," the filmmaker said, adding that the books that have been published on the tragedy 'are all in disagreement with one another.'
"[When Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were acquitted] I thought this was really the time for me to make this film as all the information became available, all the information came in the public domain," he said. "I could access the CSIS intelligence report, I could access the wire-tap reports, the RCMP investigation reports, I could access the cockpit tapes. They all became public documents."
So, Gunnarsson explained, it occurred to him he could "create a simple, clear narrative to what happened. That was really the objective for me to make this film: Who did it? To whom did they do it? How they got away with it?"
He pointed to a criminal inquiry in the British Columbia Supreme Court where Judge Ian Josephson in his judgment concluded that the bombing was the result of a Vancouver-based conspiracy by the Babbar Khalsa. "It is on public record and beyond dispute now," Gunnarsson emphasised.
Josephson clearly stated that Talwinder Singh Parmar was the leader of that conspiracy. And there's enough evidence on public record as to who were members of the Babbar Khalsa during that period, Gunnarsson explained.
His film has Jack Hooper, deputy director of CSIS who spoke publicly about the tragedy for the first time, talking straight into the camera about the CSIS surveillance of Parmar's home, etc.
The most touching narrative in the film is from Prakash Bedi, who lost his wife Saroj, son Jatin and daughter Anu in the tragedy. It took him two years and sessions with three counselors before he could enter their rooms, and finally found some peace. He weeps throughout his narrative.
There were two objectives to make the film, explained Gunnarsson, who wrote, directed and co-produced (with David Cook) the film.
"One was to make a clear narrative. And the other was in 20 years, I thought the victims became dehumanised. I thought after they lost their sense of individuality and who they were, they became kind of an amorphous mass of victims. I wanted to give them names, faces and voice," he said.
The filmmaker said the Air India tragedy was "one of the major tragedies in modern Canadian history. This is not about South Asian history or Indo-Canadian history or Punjabi history. This was a significant moment in Canadian history. They were Canadians. This film is meant to take that story and put it right into the mainstream of Canadian narratives.
"There was a great denial in the minds of the Canadian public on this issue," he continued. "Until 9/11, the Canadian public was not even willing to deal with the fact that terrorism is an issue that affects all of us.
"There were a series of errors. The suitcase should never been inter-lined for Air India in Vancouver when there was no confirmed reservation for M Singh from Toronto to Delhi. That plane was allowed to take off without M Singh on board. It should never have taken off without that passenger on board. The suitcase in Toronto was put on board when the X-ray machine in Toronto had broken down. Air India chose to use handheld scanners -- PD-4 sniffers -- which the RCMP officer Gary Carlson told Judge [John] Major were useless. And he had many weeks prior to the Air India tragedy demonstrated to Air India they were useless.
"In Montreal again," he continued, "the plane was allowed to take off without M Singh on board. The conspiracy was Vancouver-based, most of the victims were Canadian and it has profound implications about the way we think of ourselves and the society we live in," Gunnarsson lamented pointing out that sniffer dogs were not used to check the luggage. I hope this film goes some way toward distilling a very complex story and giving a voice to the Air India families, who are among the most gracious and dignified people I've met."