Special Flight opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
The ninth annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival—a showcase for movies that deal with social issues—opens tonight with Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight, a fly-on-the-wall documentary that looks at life within the confines of the Frambois detention centre in Geneva, where desperate men cling to the remote hope of being granted asylum prior to deportation from Switzerland. The film manages to capture a uniquely delicate balance between prisoner and captor. There are no good guys and bad guys here—just decent people trying to make the best of a bad situation.
The film’s title refers to the ultimate fate of most of the prisoners—a harsh exile back to their native countries, in most cases with less-than-promising circumstances waiting at the other end. Before their flights, inmates at Frambois are forced to wait around, bonding with fellow detainees and participating in sports and activities. The facilities, while modest, would be easy to confuse with a college dorm.
There is an equal focus on the staff, who come across as men and women trying to make the process as easy and as painless as possible. They are constantly updating the detainees on the progression of their cases, and then listening with infinite patience as the detainees offer heartfelt reasons why they must stay in Switzerland at all costs. Some have lived in the country for more than 20 years, while others have young children. Several fear certain death upon deportation. But the staff is there to do a job. They appear genuine in their respect for their prisoners.
The style of the documentary is unobtrusive, so there are times when there isn’t much happening. If these passages lean toward the banal, this is perhaps as it should be. Personalities emerge slowly—though the details of most of the individual cases remain murky—and it’s hard not be drawn in. Standouts include Wandifa, a reggae enthusiast with a penchant for improvising songs on the spot, and Serge, who is kind-hearted. The overwhelming humanity on display leaves an indelible impression.
Between moments of levity and heartbreak, the inmates face the cold realities of bureaucracy. Their papers may be out of order, but they are insistent that all they seek is a safe harbour. The fact that both the prisoners and the staff have the decency to recognize that there is a civil and noble way to navigate the process is uniquely touching.
At one point in the doc, after informing a few of the unfortunate about the plans for their special flights, one of the staff is surprised that things have gone without incident.
“It’s going well,” he says. His co-worker, though obviously in agreement, sees things a decidedly different way:
“Their world is caving in.”