Swiss filmmaker Fernand Melgar has returned to the Locarno Film Festival with a powerful documentary on forced deportations of failed asylum seekers.
Melgar’s work, shot at the Frambois detention centre in Geneva, is up for the Golden Leopard in the International Competition. He tells swissinfo.ch about why he was motivated to make the film.
Every year thousands of illegal aliens, for the most part clandestine immigrants and asylum seekers, are held at one of 28 detention centres in Switzerland prior to being expelled from the country.
Vol spécial (Special flight), offers a glimpse inside the centre at Frambois. Through the stories of six migrants, Melgar reveals the months of waiting, hope and despair. He highlights humanity of the guards, but also the inhumanity of forcible deportation.
The documentary’s screening follows a period of controversy over deportation flights. In March 2010 a Nigerian man died during an expatriation attempt, leading to the temporary suspension of all such flights. They resumed for Africa, with the exception of Nigeria, in July 2010. A first flight for Nigeria took off last month, but was not without incident as two Nigerians resisted boarding.
Melgar previously won a Golden Leopard in the Filmmakers of the Present section of Locarno for La Forteresse (The Fortress) in 2008, which tells the story of those going through the asylum process at the Registration Centre in Vallorbe in western Switzerland. His current work is one of three Swiss films in competition for the top prize at Locarno.
swissinfo.ch: Three years after La Forteresse, you are back in Locarno with another documentary about immigration issues. What makes you want to tell these stories?
Fernand Melgar: I don’t believe that directors choose the subjects of their own films, but that more often than not the subject chooses them. I stumbled on Frambois quite by chance, thanks to my friendship with Fahad, one of the characters in La Forteresse. He had been put in prison after having his application for asylum rejected.
When I went to talk to him, I was really taken aback because I did not know that things like this could happen. So I decided to investigate, and that’s how Vol spécial got started.
In these detention centres you find people whose only crime is to be illegal immigrants. They are awaiting deportation, but in most cases they cannot or do not want to return to their countries, either because their life is in danger or because they have been in Switzerland for so many years that leaving would mean losing everything, wives and children included.
swissinfo.ch: How did you succeed in gaining the trust of both the detainees and the guards?
F.M.: In all my documentaries I always make a kind of moral contract with people, based on openness and sincerity. In the case of Vol spécial, time was our greatest ally. For a period of six months we were able to go to Frambois and talk to these people, trying to explain what we wanted to do and so gain their trust. Eighty per cent of the staff allowed themselves to be recorded on camera, and this was really important for us. As regards the detainees, telling their own story was a way for them not to feel forgotten by the outside world - it was their cry of despair, almost.
swissinfo.ch: How did it feel, for yourself, to pass through the gates of the Frambois detention centre?
F.M.: Emotionally it was really tough to make this film and to live with the feeling of injustice you get from seeing innocent people in prison. In my view, anyway, being an illegal immigrant is something that happens to you, not a crime you commit. Yet there is so much hypocrisy about this: today there are 150,000 illegal immigrants living and working in Switzerland, and - at the risk of contradicting the [right-wing conservative] Swiss People’s Party - they can’t all be drug dealers.
In recent years, the stereotypes about foreigners have been getting more and more negative. I myself am not a militant; my films just try to make the public think, to get them to ask themselves questions.
swissinfo.ch: A year has now passed since you made this documentary. What happened to the foreigners who were deported?
F.M.: When we finished making Vol spécial we felt a bit like orphans. So we decided to follow the stories of some of these people and we discovered horrible things. I will just give you one example: Geordry, a man from Cameroon was forcibly repatriated and then imprisoned and tortured for five months just because he had applied for asylum in Switzerland. He was not the one who told the African authorities about his application for asylum, but somehow they got to hear about it. Let’s say that they came into possession of some of the documents filed with his asylum application here in Switzerland. I can say no more than that.
swissinfo.ch: You say you're not a militant but your films have a powerful political message. What do you want the Swiss government to do?
F.M.: I don’t make political films. Everybody has his own task in life. I am a director, not a politician - I am just someone who bears witness to the reality he sees. My job is to uncover the facts. Everyone should assume their own responsibilities and examine their conscience. Maybe you should ask our government ministers what they think of this film…
It is amazing how much politics in the last few years has been able to distort attitudes in Switzerland, which used to be quite an open country.
As we speak, our parliament is being asked to vote on a bill that would require teachers to inform on illegal immigrant children in their classes. Do you know when was the last time we asked teachers to report children who were "different"? Just think about it…
swissinfo.ch: During the War?
F.M.: Right. And that should make us think, shouldn’t it?
Born in 1961 into a family of Spanish trade-unionists exiled in Morocco during the Franco regime, Melgar was brought illegally into Switzerland at the age of two by his parents, who were there as seasonal workers.
He abandoned studies in business in 1980 to co-found Le Cabaret Orwell, featuring the underground culture of French-speaking Switzerland.
In 1983 he began his career in cinema with a number of experimental films.
His documentary Exit – le droit de mourir (Exit - the right to die) won several international prizes, including the Golden Link UER Award for the best European film and the Swiss Cinema Prize for 2006.
In 2008, his documentary La Forteresse won a Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in the contemporary film-makers’ section.
In March, 2010 a Nigerian detainee who was due to be deported died at Zurich airport, just before a direct flight was about to leave for Lagos. Following the incident, the Swiss government temporarily suspended special deportation flights.
Flights to Nigeria resumed on July 7, 2011, when a plane left Zurich with 19 Africans on board.
Although the Federal Migration Office said the flight was carried out without any problems, Swiss-German television showed footage of a policeman beating man who was resisting being put on the plane.
Non-governmental organisations are demanding the suspension of the flights. The Migration Office has promised to open an inquiry into the incident, but has announced in the meantime that another deportation flight is already planned.
A migration office spokesman confirmed on Sunday that police would be given powers to forcibly restrain those who resist boarding deportation flights. But these would only be used when absolutely necessary, he said.
A day spent in the Frambois detention centre costs SFr280 ($370) per detainee.
In 2009, the facility held 227 people.
A special flight costs up to SFr 20,000 ($27,000) for getting to a nearby country, and SFr 200,000 for a long-haul trip to an African country.
For this kind of flight, therefore, the cost per person ranges between SFr15,000 and SFr23,000 francs.
Annually, the cost to the federal government and cantons is estimated at around SFr1.9 million.
A trip can take up to 40 hours, during which detainees are handcuffed and secured to the seat.
Swiss International Airlines and low-cost airline Hello have been contracted to provide these flights to the government.
Source: Vol spécial media information
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch