So it stands to reason that TV writers and producers in the land would be clamouring to see who will be first to take the tragedy of Air India Flight 182 to the small screen. After all, it remains the worst aviation disaster in the history of Canada, retroactively dubbed "Canada's 9/11." There were 329 stories brought to a violent end when the bomb exploded in midair, and thousands of family members, friends, investigators, reporters and community members have harrowing tales. When Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed near the coast of Nova Scotia in September, 1998, it took less than two years for the Canadian made-for-TV movie Blessed Stranger: After Flight 111 to get made.
But nearly 20 years after the tragedy and 10 days after the acquittal of the two main suspects, the dramatic fortunes of Flight 182 remain complicated -- much like the investigation and trial that followed the crash.
No one knows more about the frustration and struggle to get a TV drama based on the incident off the ground than director and writer Srinivas Krishna. He is Indo-Canadian, he lost family friends in the disaster, and has already directed a feature film, Masala, in 1991 that took its inspiration, but not its actual story, from the bombing. What's more, with writer Peter Lauterman, he has completed a draft of a two-part miniseries about the tragedy that was given development money by Toronto 1 before its parent company, Craig Media Inc., abandoned the project when it was sold last year.
Since then Krishna and his co-producer Sherrie Johnson have been trying to find other broadcasters to jump onboard but to no avail. Global thought it would be "unsuitable" for their programming needs as the network "rarely becomes involved with miniseries." CHUM Television rejected the project on several grounds, including lack of "appetite for these kinds of big-budget minis which are based on real events," adding that the CBC "actively support them" as part of their mandate. CTV expressed some interest in Krishna's material but declined when it discovered that the CBC was developing its own miniseries with Vancouver-based Force Four ( Human Cargo). Led by producer Hugh Beard, Force Four is currently developing a script with Alan DiFiore of Da Vinci's Inquest that, if it gets the green light from the CBC, may be ready in two years.
The news came as a shock to Krishna since he was once considered for the project by Force Four but nothing came of it, prompting him to pursue his own series independently. Underlying his anger are questions about what the Air India story should be and who should tell it to other Canadians.
"To me the story was always about the families," he says. "It was never a cowboys and Indians story." Krishna believes he should be trusted with telling the story because, in this multicultural society, real diversity, he says, can be achieved only when voices from within communities are given chances. (Our interview took place the day a Statistics Canada report projected that by the year 2017, more than half the population in greater Vancouver and Toronto -- the two cities most associated with the bombing, in that Flight 182 departed from the former with passengers mainly from the latter -- will be visible "minorities.") "There's no wrong or right answer [as to]who should tell these stories," Johnson opines.
"However, when you look at a filmmaker like Krishna who wants to tell this story, it does seem like a natural fit that he would be telling the story."
Beard doesn't buy either argument. Telling the Air India bombing as a story about the families, he says, "has fallen on deaf ears" with broadcasters. "What we ended up doing is creating a story that is not much about the victims or their families -- obviously that will be part of it -- but our story is a kind of look at CSIS and the RCMP and how they investigated." As for Krishna's claim that he should be the one to tell the story, it's a "weak argument," says Beard. The bombing "affected a great number of people. It affected the woman who worked for the airline that passed the tag on. Why doesn't she write the story? She probably has more to do with it than he did. I just don't buy that argument."
While insisting that there is no Air India project that has been given the green light by the CBC as yet, Deborah Bernstein, executive director of arts and entertainment, is in agreement with Beard on at least two points. It has been difficult to find the right dramatic approach to such an enormous story, one which up until 10 days ago had no clear resolution, if we can call it that.
"It's about bigger issues," says Bernstein. "If you look internationally in terms of acts of terrorism, we felt that the bigger story is to look at how it happened. . . . I think if you want to inform the public agenda and the issues they care about, you have to deal with how did this happen. In trying to address [the family angle] you have done a good dramatic take but you haven't risen to a higher agenda in terms of public concerns."
As for the diversity issue, Bernstein is equally skeptical. "We're the CBC. We always deal with issues of diversity. That's part of our DNA," she insists. "When I'm talking about a major miniseries, I'm not talking about something that can be compartmentalized into a diversity project."
Krishna and Johnson are now left with a script that's unlikely to see the light of day. It's tempting to say it's all typically Canadian, but there's a twist. "We have already seen the general public having difficulty understanding [the bombing]as a Canadian story," says Johnson, "so a lot of producers, writers and directors see it as not a Canadian story."