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Review: 'Special Flight' on the PBS series 'POV' explores immigration

"Special Flight" ("Vol spécial"), Fernand Melgar's second film about Swiss immigration (after "The Fortress" in 2008) focuses on a Geneva detention center (one of 28), where two dozen men "sans papiers" wait, for as long as 18 months and without trial, to be deported (most of them to Africa).

The documentary, which was shot at the Framboise detention center over a period of nine months at intimate close quarters, debuts Monday as part of the PBS series "POV." Some of the inmates, or "residents" as one friendly jailer prefers to call them, have been in Switzerland a long time (one for 20 years), some have families there; many fear what will happen on their return, all feel their situation to be unjust.

The authorities, with a bureaucratic benevolence strictly limited by rules and regulations, come off as kindly and clueless, concerned with their charges but more concerned with doing their job. Most of the time -- but not always -- this means handing them over to the police to be shipped home, on the "special flight" of the title, bound and chained.

VIDEO: Summer 2013 TV preview

"I've heard what you said," one tells a protesting inmate, "but I can't resolve all the problems in the world."

The fly-on-the-wall style of the film, and the relatively long scenes and disinclination to judge the individuals, the worst of whom seem only human, recall the institutional documentaries of Frederick Wiseman (and there are no finer documentaries to recall).

Does it have something to say about American issues to an American audience? You bet it does.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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