In Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz it so happens that there’s an exhibition of Swiss artist Ursula Biemann’s video essays Sahara chronicle. In painfully strong pictures she investigates the clandestine migration network in Northern Africa. The migrants huddle among the desert dunes, trying to melt into the sand, to avoid and fool the constantly monitoring planes high above. The Crossing Europe festival in Linz showed Swiss documentarist Fernand Melgar’s film Special Flight. It might be a coincidence, but they give two sides of the same story.
Migration policies are tightening in most European countries. We’re more and more looking at the criminalization of migration as such. In Switzerland it’s called “détention administrative”, administrative detention when immigrants and asylum seekers are being detained in prison-like conditions waiting for their case to – maybe – result in a residence permit. Infinitely more often they are detained before deportation: either voluntarily on a regular plane to their country of origin or by coercive expulsions on a Vol Spécial, Special Flight. (It has not become easier since the referendum of 2010, when a majority voted yes for immediate deportation without appeal for foreigners convicted of crimes, upon the initiative of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party.)
Fernand Melgar’s unforgettable film bears that exact title: Special Flight. Such flights are notorious for their extremely brutal measures such as straps, handcuffs, sedatives, gags. Three men have already died in connection with such a special flight. One of the deaths is referred to in the film. But it’s in no way its main focus. Its focus is on people – the inmates, their guardians and the deciding officials. Melgar follows them intimately and tenderly in their everyday life.
Their dominating, overwhelming wish is to keep their humanity, pride and self-esteem in inhumane conditions. When it comes to the prisoners themselves they try to keep hope alive however hopeless their prospects. Unlike convicted criminals they have none, except the non-choice between a voluntary regular or a special flight. Through these people an infernal structure is revealed. There are 28 detention centres in Switzerland, most of them in direct connection to ordinary prisons, although the detainees have no criminal record. Some of them have family and children, having lived, worked and paid taxes in Switzerland for ten sometimes for twenty years.
For his documentary Melgar picked a detention centre known for not being directly connected to a prison, but as an institution designed to deal with the inmates bound for expulsion “intelligently and humanly” – as it proudly proclaimed upon its inauguration eight years ago. Frambois, as it’s called, prides itself on showing a higher percentage of ‘success’ than the detention centre in Zürich, known for police brutality and tougher practices. i.e. 86 % of the inmates of Frambois have been voluntarily deported to unknown destinies. It’s situated close to Geneva’s international airport. The drone of planes landing and taking off is heard throughout the film as a reminder of what is awaiting the overwhelming majority of its inmates. Some of them have been interned for two years.
It’s not the first time Melgar has dealt with the conditions of migrants and asylum seekers. In 2008 he made La Forteresse (The Fortress) about the disastrous conditions for a group of asylum seekers waiting for acceptance or rejection in the small village of Vallorbe. From the outside Frambois looks like a pretty normal villa, apart from the high fences surrounding it. Melgar brings us right inside, through Ragip, a Romany from Kosovo, who must leave after twenty years – half his life – in Switzerland. (As a matter of fact Switzerland was the first European country at the beginning of the 20th century to restrict Romany freedom of movement.)
Melgar is guided through Frambois and introduced to how it works by Denis, the guardian closest to the inmates: “If you want two tomatoes, you’ll get two tomatoes.” Ragip as well as everyone else among the 22 individuals is personally profiled by Melgar, from rapping Elvis to dignified Pitchou – in an absolutely captivating flow. Wives and children come visiting. Doors are being locked every night at nine o’clock. Bookends are being made in the carpentry. Impending rage or depression is being met by Denis’ eternal remedy Let’s do some sports’. Discussions about failed dreams of democracy and freedom in Switzerland are being closely followed.
The fascinating strength of Melgar’s film is that despite its low-key tone, its lack of overt polemics, it puts its responsive finger right on the spot. No matter if they are called clients or customers, no matter if they can have an extra tomato or yoghurt for their meal, no matter how decently and caring they are being treated: they still have no choice. Watching Special Flight brings to mind that not until the Bergier report in 1999 did Switzerland officially recognize its not so neutral policy of turning away Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during WWII.
Fiction films had been made on the subject, like Markus Imhoof’s Das Boot ist voll. Times are different now. Globalization is the word and fact of the day. Migrants and refugees come from farther away. No fiction film can tell some of their stories as well as Special Flight. In short, it has everything a masterly documentary should have.
Eva af Geijerstam, Sweden
(To see and read more, check out Fernand Melgar’s web documentary about what happened to the Frambois inmates one year after their expulsion to Senegal, Gambia, Kosovo, and Cameroon respectively. (www.volspecial.ch/en))