99 minutes

Swiss documentarian Fernand Melgar's latest film, on a prison centre for detained illegal immigrants awaiting their expulsion from Switzerland, has become a magnet for controversy since its unveiling - both in competition at the Locarno film festival and upon release in its native country. If generating passionate public debate over Swiss immigration policies was Mr. Melgar's main purpose, the mission has been largely accomplished, but there is a lot more to Vol Spécial than just that.

     A son of immigrants himself, the director has been studying the contradictions of the Swiss system for years now. This is his third film on immigration (following on from 2008's La Forteresse, shot among asylum seekers), diving headfirst into the Kafkian situation of illegal immigrants kept under "surveilled freedom" at the Frambois prison, waiting for a final decision from the Swiss authorities on their status — some are asylum seekers fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries, some long-term paperless residents who have contributed to society throughout years and decades in Switzerland. Many of them will eventually be repatriated in "special flights" chartered for the sole purpose of sending them back, as if they were menaces to society.

     Mr. Melgar focuses both on the despairing inmates, who try to keep their spirits up only to have them brutally cut down when they least expect it, and their jailers who attempt to treat them humanely knowing full well the policies they are required to enforce make a mockery of any attempt at humane treatment. It's clear whose side he is on - the way the film is structured, in a crescendo rising from the introduction of a new inmate to a final "special flight", follows the daily routines and the attempt at maintaining a pretense of normality - but the camera is always coolly observational, distant to the point of being clinical, while Karine Sudan's editing steadily unfolds a narrative of hopes raised and dashed.

     The director never shies away from the complexity of the situation, but thankfully neither does he reduce it to easily digestible, manichean bromides; refusing any sort of editorialising (there is no voiceover at all), Mr. Melgar simply lets the stories speak for themselves, showing how the smallest attempt at humanising the system is destroyed by each new departure from Frambois. And it's not the individual stories of these people who are treated like "second class citizens" that make Vol Spécial a harrowing, gripping experience — it's the mirror it holds up, not just to Switzerland but to the whole wide world.

Directed by Fernand Melgar; music by Wandifa Njie; camera (colour), Denis Jutzeler; sound, Christophe Giovannoni; film editor, Karine Sudan with the collaboration of Claude Muret.
     A Climage presentation/production, in co-production with Swiss Radio Television, SRG SSR, ARTE G. E. I. E.; with the support of the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, Fonds Régio Films, Succès Cinéma, Suissimage Cultural Foundation, Succès Passage Antenne, Vaud Foundation for Cinema. (World sales, Climage.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance DVD screener, October 14th 2011.


Popular Posts