A follow-up to his award-winning “The Fortress,” “Special Flight” finds docu helmer Fernand Melgar again exploring issues surrounding undocumented immigrants in Switzerland. As in his previous pics, Melgar maintains a “pure” docu style with no voiceover, barely any explanatory titles and no investigation. As a collective portrait of a group of hapless men held in detention with deportation looming, “Special Flight” is an affecting work when viewed strictly on an emotional level, but thinking auds will want some questions answered. Still, the film is likely to take off for all points, including boutique arthouses.
With its reputation for economic stability and neutrality, Switzerland remains a tempting haven for refugees from Africa and Eastern Europe. However, according to a Swiss law passed via referendum, those without documentation can be abruptly arrested, held without recourse to a lawyer for up to 24 months and summarily bundled onto a plane back to their country of origin. No warning is necessary, and there is no appeal. In special cases — Melgar never explains how this happens — some are released back into their Swiss lives, but most are deported via either regular flights or specially chartered planes on which they’re treated like beasts.
The helmer takes his camera to the Frambois detention center near Geneva, a purpose-built facility with surprisingly comfortable appurtenances, until it’s recalled that these men — approximately 25 at a given time — are basically prisoners whose crime was staying in the country beyond their allotted time. Some of the “residents,” as they’re euphemistically called, have been in the country for more than a decade, raising kids, paying taxes and social security, yet lacking permanent resident status.
During Melgar’s filming, a law allowing maltreated pets to have legal representation was under debate, a biting irony not lost on the Frambois inmates. Indeed, despite the facility’s generally sympathetic staff, the men in limbo are treated like children rather than adults; the docu attempts to give them their individuality and dignity, though Melgar’s decision not to focus on anyone in particular means the men become causes more than individuals.
Presumably there are separate facilities for women, though it’s never stated. Similarly, it’s not clear why certain inmates are put on regular flights back home, while others are literally tied up and immobilized for special flights, a form of mistreatment that, in addition to costing Swiss taxpayers a fortune, has had fatal consequences. In many cases the men are terrified of returning to homelands where repression and persecution are near certainties.
Those familiar with Melgar’s style will realize that an exploration of these issues will have to wait for another filmmaker, but nevertheless, the helmer is to be commended for subjecting an enormous problem to critical scrutiny. The docu’s subjects get under the skin, and their plight represents one of the major challenges to immigration policy not just in Switzerland, but in the First World as a whole.
Camera access was near total, and Melgar and his crew obviously won over not just the inmates but also the staff, who clearly want to help these men. Tech credits are strong.