Canadian TV Movie Spares Grieving Community By Downplaying Tragedy

The CBC telefilm "The Phantoms" plays up a high school basketball team winning the provincial championship a year after a highway accident took the lives of seven players and an adult.

WHISTLER, B.C. - They make made-for-TV movies differently in Canada.

Unlike the U.S. market where the major networks churn out salacious fact-based TV movies, a Canadian TV industry sustained by government subsidies and protections compels local players to behave and act ethically when portraying real-life Canadians.

So they don't cast archetypical villians or misfits in homegrown TV shows, except when made for the U.S. market, or tolerate preening narcissists or crass self-promoters as primetime stars to avoid leaving audiences wincing and cringing at their on-screen antics.

Instead, Canadian TV cultivates a brand of positivity that nurtures rather than degrades the popular culture.

A case in point is The Phantoms, a CBC telefilm about the aftermath of a tragic 2008 highway crash that cost the lives of seven high school basketball players and an adult in Bathurst, New Brunswick.

Indie producer Rick LeGuerrier recalled not wanting to further disrupt a tight-knit community devastated by the highway accident by focusing on tragedy.

The Phantoms, which recently completed production in Bathurst, puts the focus on events one year after the crash when a resilient Bathurst High School boys basketball team won the provincial basketball championship.

“The story we’re telling, of an inspiring victory, in it’s own way has helped in the healing process for this community,” LeGuerrier explained.

His tact was useful.

The Phantoms production in Bathurst, while dredging up tragic memories for some, also gave a welcome economic injection to the Atlantic Canada community.

Sudz Sutherland, who directed The Phantoms, insists it's all about doing right by Bathurst.

“I wanted the people involved to say, they did a good thing here, they did the right thing. This story would have been told anyways, but I thought if we told the story right, if they believed what we were saying and they thought we told the truth, then I thought it would be a good thing,” Sutherland explained.

To be sure, there’s tension in The Phantoms.

Andrew Wreggit, the screenwriter on the made-for-TV movie, added composite characters from outside Bathurst to contrast young high school basketball players that did grow up in the town.

“It’s the kind of thing I do in any real life movie --you consolidate and compress a big story with a lot of people into a smaller story with central characters,” Wreggit explained.

Director Sutherland concedes it’s a balancing act to pay respect to Bathurst, while engaging and entertaining Canadians.

“I think as Canadians we sometimes want to play safe with our characters, but I like to get the cat up a tree,” he said.

The collision of fact and fiction in the Canadian TV movie came full circle in the final championship game scene, where a Phantoms team made up of actors went up against an opposing high school team filled with former members of the real-life Phantoms squad, most of whom came home from college for the emotional shoot.

“That was a beautiful moment, where we had the fictional phantoms playing against real-life phantoms. It was a real show of support,” Sutherland said.

The Phantoms is expected to air on the CBC in 2012.