In 2007, individuals associated with charity group Zoé’s Ark were charged with child abduction in Chad – their intention was to have the children placed into foster families in France. A fictionalised version of the scenario forms the basis for Our Children (2012) director Joachim Lafosse’s new film The White Knights (2015), an inquest into the limits and ethical dilemmas facing well-intentioned NGOs operating in developing countries. This is tension-filled filmmaking par excellence, declining the obviousness of a typical Africa-set thriller for a murky and morally complex study in which the twists are not those of a contorting plot, but in the viewer’s conflicted stomach.
“I only have a month here,” gripes Jacques (Vincent Lindon), the grizzled head of ‘Move For Kids’ when there are technical difficulties upon the arrival of his team of volunteers in Chad. That single month is all we get too, as the actions charts the developments from wheels-down to extraction. The lack of wider context is chipped away at throughout by Lafosse’s collaboratively penned screenplay which drip-feeds information as and when it will have the premium impact. Needless to say, the pressure is evidently on for Jacques and his crew, echoed in the insistent handheld cinematography of Jean-François Hensgens who captures furrowed brows and kicked-up dust with equal fervour.
Passion and energy are defining factors both behind and in front of the camera. However, it quickly becomes clear that the ‘Move For Kids’ team’s zeal is being directed towards a less than entirely legitimate charity endeavour. Integrity, and even the law, are not as important as helping these children – “even one kid saved makes it worth it” – and thus runs Lafosse’s expertly delivered game of moral cat and mouse. Operating in a world of greys (or perhaps browns, given the dusty locale) there is constant questioning of the validity of every action and statement. The title itself expresses this duality with graceful perspicacity, one one hand the word white denoting the pure intent and goodness, on the other it being laced with bitter irony and the sense of western condescension and the hangover of colonialism. Every time the audience thinks they’ve settled on the side of this line that they fall on, the next revelation or dubious decision is deployed to undermine it.
In meetings with local tribal leaders desperation is apparent – for money on one side and orphaned children on the other. In one utterly bizarre scene, Jacques and his colleagues becomes tearful at the reaction of a middle-class man back in France when he learns that he’s going to become an adoptive father – none of them undone by the unreliable paperwork about the child’s biological parentage. Lindon and his fellow actors all fill their roles well, earnest and sure of themselves in public even when private fears arise. Those are perhaps most acutely felt in the chilling and ambiguous final shot that make it abundantly clear not that Lafosse is unwilling to provide simple answers, but that there are none. The White Knights is a gripping testament to the admirable, fallible and increasingly nebulous nature of aid work.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.