What made you look once more into the issue of asylum?

FERNAND MELGAR: In the discussions that followed the screenings of The Fortress, I was struck by the public’s unawareness of how the continual hardening of the laws on asylum and foreigners affects the lives of innocent human beings. I believe Swiss citizens no longer really know why they vote. The populism of the UDC’s campaigns (UDC: Democratic Union of the Centre, a conservative political party in Switzerland) blinds voters and stirs up xenophobia. At screenings of the film in schools, the term “asylum applicant” was, for a majority of teenagers, synonymous with “offender”, and asylum merely a form of abuse of the social good. So confining asylum applicants in order to deport them seemed normal to these teenagers. I considered it urgent to make a film about the unknown reality of administrative detention and deportation.

Special Flight also portrays the fate of the paperless…

FM: 150,000 paperless migrants live in Switzerland. The vast majority of them work, pay taxes and social insurance contributions. They look after our elderly, care for our children, and clean our flats and hospitals. Without them, many hotels and construction sites would have to shut down for lack of cheap labour. Both unsuccessful asylum seekers and paperless migrants live with a sword of Damocles dangling over their head: they may be arrested at any moment, imprisoned for months or years and deported from Switzerland without any form of trial. Or, the height of absurdity, they are released only to be arrested again a few months later. I realized that I needed to continue reflecting on the work initiated in Vallorbe; I needed to scratch the surface more to loop the loop of The Fortress, in an attempt to better understand this pendulum swing between hope and despair that characterizes so many of these migrant destinations.

How did you discover Frambois prison?

FM: When shooting The Fortress, I befriended Fahad, a young Iraqi translator threatened with death, who took refuge in Switzerland. He was arrested immediately after receiving the negative decision of his asylum request, in order to be deported. Visiting him in Frambois, I discovered the most profound human anguish that I have witnessed in this country. Fahad told me of his companions in misfortune: innocent men destroyed by their incarceration, fathers torn from their children, illegal workers worn out by years of hard labour, and young men on the verge of suicide, broken in their search of a better life. All were treated like criminals, whereas their only offense was not having a residence permit in Switzerland. Some were locked up for months, although there was no readmittance agreement with their country of origin to return them. They were at the mercy of an arbitrary cantonal immigration service. A few months later, Fahad’s brutal deportation by special flight shocked me. Six Zurich policemen turned up in his cell in the middle of the night, chained him up and took him away. He bore the physical and psychological marks of manhandling and humiliation for a long time after-wards.

How did you get permission to film in such a location?

FM: Frambois is a joint administrative detention centre of the cantons of Geneva, Neuchâtel and Vaud. I contacted the state councillors in charge. After lengthy discussions, I gained their trust. All agree that The Fortress opened a positive public debate, and they consider it necessary to continue this work on the issue of asylum and migration beyond all populist discourse. I obtained from them and from the Frambois management the necessary authorisations to unrestrictedly film life at Frambois as well as the work of the judicial body and the police of the cantons concerned.

How did you manage to convince the prisoners to appear openly?

FM: Before the shoot, I spent a lot of time with Frambois inmates, whom I encountered by the by during my visits. Gradually, I gained their trust and they started confiding in me. Feeling rebellious and forgotten by the outside world, almost all of them agreed to participate in the film. They knew that it was not going to change their personal situation, but it was a way for them to be heard and to witness a situation that seemed unfair to them.

What about the Centre’s staff?

FM: The director of Frambois immediately agreed and encouraged his team to participate in this project. He even defended it with his superiors. Prison wardens are often perceived in a bad light, whereas he believes they perform important social work in a situation that is very difficult to handle. This film was an opportunity to showcase their work. As far as Frambois staff was concerned, my objective approach towards the institution shown in The Fortress motivated them to appear in the film.

What particular aspect left the greatest mark on you during the shoot?

FM: We had close ties with almost all inmates. We spent several months with them and knew their history, their family and their fears. When the police came to get them at Frambois to put them aboard a special flight, we were present for the shoot, but we could never say goodbye. Their distressing last gaze still haunts me today.

Why is there no picture of them being tied up or forced to depart in your film?

FM: Detention is a cantonal matter, whereas the organisation of special flights is the responsibility of the Federal Office for Migration (FOM). I therefore requested their permission to shoot in the airport lobby where the deportees were chained up before being boarded. At first, I received no response from the FOM. Following my repeated requests, the FOM press service told me about a federal order that prohibited filming a person in a humiliating or degrading situation. Given the absurdity of such a response, especially in view of the fact that the deportees had given me their permission to film them, I asked for a copy of this order. I am still waiting for it.

Yet the FOM gave you permission to shoot The Fortress…

FM: That’s true. But to my amazement, the former head of communications of the FOM, now the right-hand man of Federal Councillor Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf, informed me that he sincerely regretted having given me his permission to shoot The Fortress.

Do you know what became of these detainees after their deportation?

FM: After each departure by special flight, we called them to see how their journey had gone. All their testimonies were overwhelming. Not only did they feel thrown out by Switzerland like trash bags, but they also suffered the physical and psychological consequences associated with being chained up. Some were arrested or divested on arrival by the police of their country, sometimes under the very nose of the Swiss representatives. So we decided to continue seeing them in their home country and filming their lives after their deportation. These portraits are presented in the film The world is like that coproduced by RTS and ARTE.

Photos of the director (ZIP 8Mb)

Fernand Melgar’s Biofilmography (PDF)