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Film Review | Special Flight

5/5 • A heady mix of tragicomedy and grim reality, resulting in a film with a heartbreaking trajectory that implores us to never forget the immediate needs of human beings of all stripes and nationalities, no matter how tangled the politics of migration may be

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
25 October 2017, 8:09am
Migrants are detained in a Swiss prison before being forcibly sent back to their countries of origin in Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight – to be screened as part of the Rima Film Festival
Migrants are detained in a Swiss prison before being forcibly sent back to their countries of origin in Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight – to be screened as part of the Rima Film Festival
A nine-month immersion in the administrative detention center of Geneva, one of the 28 deportation centers in Switzerland.

“We’re deprived of freedom in a free country,” one of the protagonists of Fernand Melgar’s 2011 documentary Special Flight laments. It’s a painful and resonant statement that just about succeeds in encapsulating the plight of the subjects of this lucid, pin-sharp film, soon to be screened locally as part of the Rima Film Festival. The “free country” in question is Switzerland, and the deprivation of freedoms happens at the Frambois prison just outside Geneva.

This is where migrants hailing from a number of countries – from Kosovo to Africa – are put into detention after the state has decided they no longer deserve to walk the streets of Switzerland freely; despite the fact that some of them have established families in the country, and even lived there upwards of twenty years.

Unless legal aid allows them a lucky strike at convincing the powers-that-be to reverse their initial decision, allowing them to resume their lives in Switzerland, all of the detainees of the facility will eventually be flown back to their home countries – never mind that some of them have forged their identities in Switzerland, and that returning to their supposed ‘home’ countries could even get them killed.

Absurd: A father faces the threat of deportation
Absurd: A father faces the threat of deportation
Some of them will have the dubious good fortune of being allowed to travel back on a regular flight. Others, however, will be relegated to the ‘Special Flight’ – during which they are bound and bagged for ‘maximum security’ in what is a perilous journey back into uncertainty. 

Gaining admirable access into the facility, Melgar then proceeds to deliver up what is both a fascinating fly-on-the-wall portrait of the sheer absurdity of the arbitrary and compassion-free approach to the migration adopted by the Swiss establishment, while also giving space to the migrants in question to express themselves and their situation. 

The resultant film is a heady mix of tragicomedy and grim reality, which leads to a film with a heartbreaking trajectory that implores us to never forget the immediate needs of human beings of all stripes and nationalities, no matter how tangled the politics of migration may be, or how threatening the supposed dangers of ‘mass migration’ may appear from the outside looking in. 

Melgar’s degree of access is, once again, the crucial kicker here. While Frambois is certainly no Guantanamo, and the perceived ethical robustness of its director and staff may just be the reason why Melgar managed to get a foot in the door in the first place. But neither do its day-to-day operations nor overarching legal logic allow it to be painted in a terribly flattering light. 

A limbo state in every sense of the word, the place is run by bureaucrats who like to think of themselves as being compassionate. They will insist that this is not a prison, even though its detainees can never venture into the outside world and must be locked back up in their cells by 9pm each night.

The staff, however, never come across as eminently boo-able villains, either. They are simply all-too-human cogs in a machine that should be humane but can't help its machine-like nature. Either convinced of the correctness of their job or willfully ignorant of its contradictions and insidious cruelty, they plod on regardless, some of them striking cordial, even warm relationships with the detainees. The air of mutual respect that is cultivated between them is both encouraging (there is no recourse to violence or other nastiness from either ‘side’) and deeply upsetting (the idea that both, caged as they are by their situations and jobs, are soon made comfortable by that cage). 

Given the chance to speak, however, the migrants themselves do put the paradoxes and injustices of the system into stark relief. One of the most remarkable aspects of the documentary is the character arcs that emerge. With an attention to narrative rhythm worthy of a fictional feature film, Melgar succeeds in taking us on various journeys for the migrant protagonists. 

A climactic scene in which an African husband and father, threatened with deportation on the flimsiest grounds, rails against a simpering ‘head of security’ whose shriveled frame and bug-eyed stare would not be out of place in a Coen Brothers film, will remain seared in my memory forever. 

Special Flight will be screened as part of the Rima Film Festival on October 27. Click here to read an interview with director Fernand Melgar, and here to find out more about the Rima Film Festival 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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