Home is often a thing of heart and mind. Just as reality is subjective, so is home. So ultimately, we can take with us ‘home’ anywhere we go.

But on a more practical scale, home is where we live with those we love. It’s where we have a job, a flat, a sense of navigation, of culture and language. So it is not so easy to leave behind this home to return to the place we were born. Are we expected to remain bound to the soil above which we took our first breath? Are we not obliged to grow out of one national identity to adopt another?

Place of birth vs. country of residency are drawn out in Fernand Melgar’s latest documentary Special Flight, which opened the 54th International DOX Leipzig festival in October. This film gains full access to the Frambois Detention Center in Geneva, one of 28 in Switzerland, where a couple dozen undocumented men, mostly from Africa and Eastern Europe, are detained to await an update on their status.

Only three fates can be bestowed upon them: one, they are released to resume life as a Swiss; two, they are offered a police-escorted flight back to their country of origin with no penalty; or three, if they refuse option two they must take a ‘special flight’ back home, which is chartered by the Federal Office for Migration. A special flight involves the prisoner being handcuffed, chained to his chair and equipped with a helmet and diapers for what can often amount to a 40-hour journey. According to the film’s official website, even the Swiss Medical Association opposes special flights for medical and ethical reasons.

Hitting straight to the heart, Melgar’s film observes the intimate details of these men’s lives, how they comfort each other through their fear and distress while supporting their families on the outside. And most astonishingly, how they cope with the art of patience in a purgatory that is sealed off from one home while dangling over the past of another.

Special Flight by Fernand Melgar

We observe the discourse amongst the devoted and humane, yet matter-of-fact, staff and their relationship with the detainees. Before handing them over to the police, the director of Frambois wishes them luck good luck with a warm slap on the back. The warden Denis, in particular, represents the empathetic arm of the law – a deeply sympathetic warden who has made genuine bonds with the detainees. Towards the end, as the film reaches a climax where the Center must deport 12 men in one afternoon, Denis is almost blinking back tears. He knows ‘good luck’ is not a shield that will protect against what awaits these men when they step off the plane in Congo, Nigeria, Kosovo.

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