Review: Special Flight (aka Vol spécial)


Throughout the third world, there is the class of people who work incredible hours at incredibly demanding jobs who don’t get paid a living wage. They live like squatters with make-shift flimsy walls to cover a bed or mat. There is no education for their children and disease rips itself through the living labyrinth of their slums.

Their own countries keep them from accessing pure water, electricity, education and a sanitation system.

The entrepreneurial ones scrounge to save up enough money to escape their oppressive hell-hole to find a better way. They will risk death to do this.

Each year, millions of men and women are imprisoned without trial or sentence because they are apprehended as illegal immigrants. Maybe they are caught at the border. Maybe they are caught 20 years later through a work, education or legal demand (like a marriage license) for immigration papers.

“Special Flight” is the story of a small group of 25 immigrants detained in the Frambois Prison in Geneva. They are treated with kindness and respect by the man in charge. He hugs them in times of sadness and smiles with them appreciating their music.

We don’t understand the impact of the term special flight until close to the end of the film. Up until that time we see these men being treated well. They participate in their own sustenance. They cook, clean and work out. They do woodworking and have other day jobs for which they are paid. Family members may visit them for an hour each week.

All have appealed to stay in Switzerland. Many have jobs and families there. As their cases proceed through the Swiss courts they wait, developing their own camaraderie.

For each, there are three options. For some it is resolved that they can stay. For others their case has been rejected and they are returned to their country as free men with respect. For others, they are designated for a “special flight.”

It is this last category that we don’t fully understand until two of the men at Frambois are told they will be on one. These kind, soft spoken, intelligent men whom we have gotten to know throughout the documentary, are stripped, body checked, chained and handcuffed.

News reports (not in the film) reveal that they are taken to another spot where they are diapered, helmeted and strapped to a chair which is carried onto a plane with several guards surrounding them on the flight. The constraints can be tight and last for up to 40 hours.

Our two Frambois men never make it home. Their flight is compromised when a third illegal dies in his constraints. The two return to Frambois and report they were treated worse than animals, humiliated, and then bound so tightly they were bent over in pain. Reporters get a hold of the story and an investigation begins. Our Frambois men are needed as witnesses.

The first reason to see this revealing documentary is to raise questions about how we treat illegal immigrants once they are apprehended. The second is to come up with a new plan on repatriation. The third reason, one that has been with us through time, is to help us re-evaluate our own personal global role in supporting those not born into a stable, livable environment.

2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Special Flight: June 16 and 17
Discussion with filmmaker following
Presented with: Refugees International
Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater


Director: Fernand Melgar
Producer: Stéphane Goël
Country: Switzerland
Language: French (Original version) | German (some dialogue) with English subtitles
Release Date: March 28 (France) –June 16 NYC Premiere
Also Known As: Eidiki ptisi
Runtime: 103 min

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