‘Special Flight’ Shows What It’s Like to Live in a Suspended State of Asylum

“Why are people who are not criminals deprived of their freedom?” asks Geordry. “I came to a country of human rights, a country of asylum,” that is, Switzerland. So he thought. When this son of an assassinated opposition leader in Cameroon left his home and applied for asylum in Switzerland, he didn’t guess that he’d be captured and incarcerated at Frambois Prison in Geneva, caught between nations and governments, unable to make his legal case and dreading his forced return to Cameroon, where, he knows, “My life would be in danger.”

“Most of us,” Geordry observes of his fellow inmates at Frambois, “have done nothing wrong. The only crime we’re guilty of is requesting asylum in Switzerland.” These inmates are the focus of Special Flight (Vol spécial), airing this month on PBS as part of its excellent POV documentary series. Fernand Melgar’s third film examining the inconsistent and troubling immigration system in his native Switzerland, it focuses not only on the tragic immobility of the prisoners, but also the frustrations and determination to find a right thing to do on the part of their attorneys.

“I can’t leave,” Ragip says by way of his introduction in the film. He too is detained at Frambois. No matter that Ragip has paid taxes and social insurance contributions for two decades, or that he has three children and a wife in Geneva. Ragip has been “picked up,” and so, he now faces three possibilities, an agent at the institution explains. 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 the film. Imprisoned and then shipped back to countries they haven’t see in years and where their lives might be at risk, they spend long days and nights alone and unknowing, sometimes brutally restrained (strapped to chairs, dressed in diapers, unable to move), and rarely offered options.

As the film reveals, the prisoners at Frambois, who number 25 to 28 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 a 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.”

This feeling is emphasized by the film’s tight spaces and confined frames, the prisoners shot from behind fences and enclosed by shadow as well as walls. 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, an agent named Denis, suggests, “Things will change because of this.” Abdoul, a prisoner in the yard, 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.

RATING 10 / 10