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Silverdocs 2012: 'Vol Spécial' and 'The Waiting Room'

Special Flight (Vol spécial)

Two remarkable documentaries, Special Flight and The Waiting Room, show how hard it is to wait, as subjects face uncertain futures, full of dread, hoping against hope that something will change, knowing they have no say in what happens next.

Special Flight (Vol spécial)

Director: Fernand Melgar
Cast: Geordry, Ragip, Jeton, Serge, Julius, Alain
Rated: NR
Studio: Climage
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-19 (Silverdocs Film Festival)

The Waiting Room

Director: Peter Nicks
Cast: Cynthia Y. Johnson, Veronica Couvson, Matthew Rehrer
Rated: NR
Studio: Open'hood, ITVS
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-19 (Silverdocs Film Festival)

"No, I can't leave," Ragip insists. He's facing an agent at Frambois Prison in Switzerland, who gazes back implacably. "Yes, you are," says the agent, who goes on to describe Ragip's probable future. No matter that he's paid taxes and social insurance contributions for two decades, or that he three children and a wife in Geneva. Ragip has been picked up, and so, he now faces three possibilities. If his legal case works out, he might be released. More likely, he will choose between a "regular flight" back to Kosovo, which might allow him the chance to blend into a crowd on landing, or a "special flight," chained and shepherded by police officers and immigration officials. Given these "choices," Ragip insists neither is possible. He shakes his head, again and again. "I understand," he tells the agent. "I'm not leaving."

One of thousands of men and women imprisoned without trial or sentence in Switzerland each year, Ragip is also one of several subjects in Fernand Melgar's remarkable documentary, Special Flight (Vol special). Screening on 19 June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York, as well as 19 and 21 June at the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, the film outlines the impossible situations of detainees, first imprisoned and then shipped off, to countries they haven't see in years and where their lives might be at risk, sometimes brutally restrained (strapped to chairs, dressed in diapers, unable to move).

In Special Flight, the prisoners at Frambois -- 25 to 28 interned at a time -- know what's at stake, live each day in limbo, knowing they have no say in what happens next. "Mentally speaking," observes Geordry, "It's very hard to be here." In between their interviews with agents -- who maintain what seems a frightening focus on the task before them, unable to acknowledge even basic facts. "I understand this must be difficult for you," an official tells Pitchou, who in turn tries to explain the danger he faces back in Africa, not to mention the fact that he has a fiancée and baby in Aigle. "It's not up to me to solve this," the agent says. "I haven’t done anything," Pitchou protests. "I have a work contract." Looking over the table at the unflinching agent, he speaks his mind: "It's as if I was faced with a devil, trying to convince him, not getting anywhere. You with your square ideas, just out to hurt people."

Certainly, this seems the case, a feeling emphasized by the film's tight spaces and confined frames. And if the agents can't show sympathy to the inmates before them, some of them do show their own frustrations during meetings among themselves. As they discuss cases that might be changing or plan the moments when they'll inform prisoners they're on their way to the airport for their special flights (they try to manage the news out of sight of other inmates, knowing the reactions it might incite), it's clear they live with their own vexations -- partly because they know the tragic history of such flights, namely, some prisoners die in custody due to guards' abuse or neglect.

Following one such incident, reported by a prisoner who was on a flight with a victim and then returned to Frambois, one of the more empathetic agents, Denis, suggests, "Things will change because of this." Abdoul, a prisoner, shakes his head, "I'll bet nothing will change," then imagines a future mostly like not his own: "Sooner or later, Africa will be our home again," he says. "We just came here to find a better life, because you came to Africa and ruined everything... Sooner or later, we'll go back, but nothing will change here."

Amid the many scenes that show men in their cells, in the cafeteria, or playing soccer in the tiny prison yard, unable to forget their impending flights, for planes roar overhead each day, Abdoul's brief, extraordinarily civil outburst makes clear how used to waiting the prisoners have become. They live each day without choices, only scant hopes that a lawyer will find a way around for the occasional individual.

The strain of waiting shapes another film at Silverdocs. Peter Nicks' The Waiting Room, screening 19 and 20 June at the Festival, observes a day in the life of the emergency room in Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. Here too, individuals face dire futures, shaped by lack of health insurance and resources, dependent on authorities who themselves have too much to do and too few options.

Here again, the film reveals the sense of limits and constraints felt by subjects. The camera keeps close watch on a few cases during the day, including a small girl brought in by her worried parents, her face swollen and body burning up with what may be an allergic reaction, and her father out of work for a year and so unable to secure her care, as well as a 20someting man diagnosed at a nearby private hospital with a testicular tumor that "must come out." That very morning, he and his girlfriend tell the doctor at Highland, the surgery for which he's been scheduled was cancelled, because he lacks insurance. And yet another man, a carpet layer since 1974, has been struck by bone spurs so painful he can't sleep at night: he has no way to pay for necessary surgery, and the pain meds he's been prescribed either don't work or trouble his sleeping pattern so he can't go to work.

The Waiting Room

Such sad stories are endless, indicated by closeups of faces in the waiting room. Many of these subjects don't even speak, or share their experiences with each other while they wait. The film also follows several hospital workers -- doctors, nurses, financial aid agents -- as they do their best to free up beds, keep patients overnight, or help them get through yet another day. "Sometimes I have to admit them as much for their social conditions as their medical ones," says one young doctor. "It's not ideal, but we’re a public hospital, we're a safety net in society. We're an institution of last resort for so many people." And so he tries to track down families or facilities for his patients, fighting systems that persist, insidiously.

An intake nurse does her best to keep patients calm as they wait, noting their symptoms and sometimes helping them to face what's in front of them. When the little girl's father begins to panic on hearing about her speedy heart rate and 105 degree fever, Cynthia Johnson counsels him. It's scary, she agrees, but as she sees the child begin to worry at her father's reaction, Cynthia jostles him: "You're supposed to be the shield." He regroups in an instant, the camera peeping up at him as he nods. "She's gonna be okay," he agrees.

As impossible as each day must seem -- for doctors as much as for patients -- the waiting room is an ongoing process. The Waiting Rom insists on what goes right as well as the many difficulties, the losses and fears.


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