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.
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.
For Denis, the final deportation of these men can be viewed as a sort of betrayal on the part of his country. These men are not criminals and have committed no offense, that is precisely why Frambois looks more a like a low-budgeted recreation center than a deportation facility. The prison with ‘no criminals’ is equipped with 22 individual cells, each with a refrigerator and TV. Inmates are free to roam outside their quarters from morning to late evening. The common room is one of the central locations of the film – full of tables, chairs, table tennis and other games where inmates can hang out, eat meals and visit the chaplain.
Though thoughtful and accessible, Special Flight offers little in the way of the cold hard facts of immigration policy in Switzerland. With no voiceover, explanatory titles or statistics, and no investigation outside the parameters of the detention center, this is pure observational documenting – as Ragga songs of freedom sung by one detainee echo down hallways and peak as we enter his cell. As a cinematic work the film is wonderfully evocative, but as a case to scrutinize the Swiss asylum system, it’s full of holes in which answers need to be slotted. For example, what is the reason why one man Melgar follows is released back into Swiss society while the others must simply return ‘home.’
Economically stable and politically neutral, Switzerland is a choice destination for immigrants who face dangerous and uncertain lives in countries riddled with repression and persecution. Around 150,000 paperless migrants live in Switzerland and the vast majority of them pay taxes and social insurance contributions, speak French and have jobs and families yet somehow are unable to secure permanent residency. According to Swiss federal law, illegal foreigners above 15 years of age can be imprisoned for a maximum period of 18 months pending their deportation from Switzerland.
But just how to handle the operations of deportation, however, has not yet been defined in federal law, thus a special system of administrative detention had to be invented. So, without trial or sentence, immigrants can be smuggled aboard an airplane back to their countries, without warning or appeal.
If facts about these deportees and federal deportation law actually made their way from the website into the film, there would be a stronger more informative work here, potentially raising public awareness which might help to combat these practices.
With Special Flight, Fernand Melgar is on the precipice of a truly important film, as Europe struggles to solidify a cohesive character and climb out of its economic quagmire while delicately balancing national identities with multi-cultural expansion.
Yet the double-edged sword of democratic countries certainly left its mark on one detainee in Frambois, “They say, ‘we’re the country of human rights, we provide asylum.’ But those who request asylum are locked up. We’re deprived of freedom in a free country, a democratic country.”
In the past decade, the integration issue has been the subject of hysterical public debate in Germany – and last year the hot lava leaked again when German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany was a failure: “Of course the tendency had been to say, ‘let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other’. But this concept has failed, and failed utterly,” she stated back in October of 2010.
Then there’s Thilo Sarrazin, German former central banker and member of the Social Democratic Party, who enraged many with his book last year, Germany Abolishes Itself which remarks that Muslims were largely incompatible with German society. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had to sweep up the ashes by announcing that, indeed, “Islam belongs to Germany.” Still, the German government’s integration commissioner stated back in August that Sarrazin has damaged efforts to integrate immigrants into society. While Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight captures the exit of immigrant populations, German filmmaker Britt Beyer’s Becoming German shows their arrival. Humorous and poignant, Beyer’s film comments on assimilation in Germany through the process of integration courses. Offered only since 2005, these courses aim to teach the foreigner better transition into the country. But does that infer, ‘how to act more German’ or simply, ‘how to understand’ your fellow countrymen? From Beyer’s insider observation, it seems to be a little of both.