POV: How did you come to make Special Flight?
Fernand Melgar: I made a film called The Fortress. The Fortress is a portrait of an institution. When you come to Switzerland and you want to get asylum, you have to apply in this institution. And in fact many, the majority of people don’t get the refugee status and they have to leave in 24 hours. But in fact a lot of people stay in Switzerland because they don’t know where to go, even if they don’t get the refugee status. And when I made this film, one of my main characters, he didn’t get the asylum status and he stayed in fact in Switzerland. And one day he called me and he says, “Fernand, I’m in jail.” And I say, “what crime have you done? I haven’t [committed] any crime…In the street they asked for my papers and I go to jail.] And I couldn’t believe it. And so I go to this jail and I see my friend, but I see also a lot of people in these jail and they haven’t done anything but are just here because they refused to go back to their country. Because some people are in danger in their country or they just don’t want to go back. And so they stay here until they are forced by special flight to go back to their country.
POV: The detention center at Frambois, from the perspective of the U.S. looks comfortable and fairly open for the detainees. Is that representative of detention centers or is it a particularly unusual place?
Melgar: In other jails, the detention conditions are very tough and very hard. But in this jail they decided to have a social approach. And just before doing the film I said, “Okay, if I [show this], there’s a danger that people says, oh what are you complaining, it’s a very nice place to be?” And in fact I thought, “How we can have a social approach to something that’s unsocial? That it’s against the basic humanitarian law?” The banality du mal…..
POV: The banality of evil.
Melgar: The banality of evil. And it’s what we see in that film. All the guardians are very gentle, and very kind. And they say, “I only do my job.” They say “I try to do it in the better way.” But in fact we see that doing his job in the better way, it’s a banalization of evil. You can’t have a process where in the end they kill a person. But in fact all people do it in a very gentle way. And we have a banalization of evil in fact in front of us.
POV: So what is a special flight? What’s the process of a special flight?
Melgar: You know we say that in Switzerland that when we do something, we do the best. When we make watches, we make the best watches. When we make chocolate, we make the best chocolate. So when we force people to go back to the country, we do it in the…I can think of a better way, but in the most efficient way. So it’s unique in the world. When a special flights begin, they take detainees and attach them [to a chair] on 9 points of the body. And it’s very dangerous. Three people are dead now from this kind of treatment. Amnesty International and many NGO consider it torture, this kind of treatment.
POV: And how did you get access to this particular jail, this facility?
Melgar: I had an administrative barrier. But at the end, in fact the director of the jail helped me. The director loved the idea of the film because he says, this jail exists because we are a democratic country and the Swiss people vote to put this illegal immigrant in jail. But nobody knows exactly what the consequences are. And the director told me, “I have to do the dirty job, to put these guys in jail and they haven’t committed any crime.” And I think it’s interesting for Swiss people to see what really happens when we have to apply this law. And in fact, just before I began the film, I stayed six months inside, like the staff of the jail, just before filming because I wanted to gain the trust of the detainees, but also the confidence of the employees. I had to feel very free inside because if you come in a place and you just start to film, sometimes it’s not exactly the reality. Perhaps people can play comedy, play like a character in a fiction film. But if you stay six months you understand exactly how the machine works. Because we are in a machine that would destroy people. I stayed six months to have the confidence of everybody. And when I said I could start, I filmed for three months.
In Switzerland we have what we call a direct democracy. All the people of the country have to vote on new laws. We don’t have a Congress or things like that. It’s the people who say they want this kind of a law and they vote on it. When they see the guardians of the jail, and they see people like you and me and they say, “Did I vote for this law?” Switzerland, it’s like a fortress. And it says, okay, it’s a miracle we are in this kind of condition today. And now they don’t know how to react in front of this kind of film, because they see that it’s unbelievable to have this kind of jail in the land of the Geneva Convention, in the land that invented humanitarian law.
On the other hand, they say, okay, we are very small country – we have to protect ourselves from the outside. And they have. This jail had 25 spots, but today they are constructing a new jail in the same place for 250. It’s multiplied by ten. We had a lot of demonstrations against this because we are a democratic country and we have a lot of people making demonstrations against the special flights, against this kind of detention of illegal migrants. But in fact it changed nothing. And in fact, the number of illegal immigrants is increasing. And it’s a war. Today it’s a war against immigration. And I think perhaps it’s a world war.
POV: So what were some of the biggest surprises that you had in going in to make this film? What in you changed as a result of spending time with all of the guards and the detainees?
Melgar: We’re making new laws against migration, but we don’t see the real impact on people. You know when I made this film, I knew I couldn’t open the doors in this jail to free all the people inside. I think that all these people have to be freed, but perhaps with my film I open a window and through this window, you can see what happening inside.