‘The White Knights’ (‘Les Chevaliers blancs’): TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A probing study of Third World intervention gone wrong.

Vincent Lindon (‘The Measure of a Man’) headlines Joachim Lafosse’s new drama.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” so the proverb goes, and perhaps no tagline better befits The White Knights (Les Chevaliers blancs), a provocative and probing new drama from Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse. Once again delving into the manipulative gray areas and morally ambiguous zones in which many human beings operate, this well-performed study of groupthink gone bad is less dramatically potent than the filmmaker’s previous effort, Our Children, but remains engrossing enough to warrant steady art house play after a premiere in Toronto’s Platform competition.

Starring the charismatically stoical Vincent Lindon (winner of this year’s Cannes acting prize for The Measure of a Man), Knights was inspired by the highly suspect, highly mediatized true story of Zoe’s Ark – a French NGO whose members were arrested in 2007 for illegally trafficking children they claimed to be orphans from war-torn Darfur. Sentenced to hard labor but eventually extradited to their homeland, the group’s actions – especially those of leader Eric Breteau and his girlfriend, Emilie Lelouch – revealed the dark underside of certain humanitarian aid missions, where those being rescued don’t necessarily need to be rescued. Or do they?

That’s one of many questioned raised by the intricately woven script from Lafosse, Thomas van Zuylen and Bulle Decarpentries, which recreates the entirety of the failed operation, from the moment the “Move for Kids” team (a fictional name used here) lands with supplies in an unnamed African country racked by war, to their final hours as they attempt to flee to France with dozens of adoptable “orphans” in tow.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

Headed up by the burly no-nonsense Jacques (Lindon) – a man of few words who always knows what he wants – and his directive right-hand girl, Laura (Louise Bourgoin), the volunteers seem eager at first to dispense medical care and other forms of aid to indigenous youngsters, though it soon becomes clear that they have other, more dubious designs. What those are we will learn about through dealings that Jacques and his local fixer, Xavier (Reda Kateb), have with tribal leaders in surrounding villages, who are handed envelopes of cash to deliver parentless children to Jacques’s crew.

There’s clearly nothing wrong with saving kids who risk death at the hands of warring factions – as seen in one sequence where the workers attend to victims of an attack – but it’s another question to expedite them to a foreign country without going through the proper channels. “There’s always a risk” that such adoptions will not be 100% verified, claims Jacques in order to defend his exploits, while another eager beaver volunteer explains that “the importance is to have love to give them.”

No doubt, but at what cost? Lafosse lays out the issues during several scenes where the Move for Kids members argue about their methodology, especially when a mother arrives at their encampment to claim a child they believed to be an orphan. This incites one doctor (regular Yannick Renier) to walk out, taking a few volunteers with him, while a journalist (director-actress Valerie Donzelli) filming the proceedings starts interrogating Jacques and Laura about the legitimacy of their work.

As more children begin to arrive and the remaining staff prepares to whisk them away, the plot thickens again after a bit of a midsection lull, leaving us in a rather difficult position as viewers: Do we want Jacques to succeed with his plans, offering these kids the possibility of a better life? Or do we want him to get caught, paying for his crimes but abandoning so many livelihoods in the process?

Of course, Lafosse plays off this ambiguity till the very end, making it hard to either love or loathe what Jacques and Move the Kids are trying to accomplish. Lindon’s performance is equally conflicting in this regard: his character comes across as a ruthless jerk for most of the time, yet how can one criticize the man if he manages to save just one child from ruin? (The scene where he nearly sheds a tear when calling up a French adoptive father-to-be is as heartbreaking as it is disturbing.)

Bourgoin is also convincing as the somewhat brainwashed Laura, while Donzelli is memorable as the movie’s wobbly moral compass -- until she too is forced to take sides, leaving it up to a native translator (the excellent Rougalta Bintou Saleh) to do what's right, or wrong, depending on your point of view.

Working with returning DP Jean-Francois Hensgens, Lafosse captures many sequences in extended master shots with several cast members present, making it hard to focus on any one character but increasing the overall feeling of ambivalence. This results in a film that has less of an emotional sway than needed at times, yet one that thankfully avoids the sentimental pandering of many such Third World-set dramas.  

With Jacques and the others holed up in their walled mission – presented by production designer Olivier Radot as a cross between a Doctors Without Borders camp and the David Koresh compound (indeed, there’s something sect-like about the whole NGO setup here) – the volunteers are constantly obliged to weigh the value of actions that are, in the end, impossible to measure, and we’re left facing a number of crucial questions for which The White Knights offers no easy answers.

Production companies: Versus Production, Les Films du Worso
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Louise Bourgoin, Valerie Donzelli, Reda Kateb, Yannick Renier, Rougalta Bintou Saleh
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Screenwriters: Joachim Lafosse, Thomas van Zuylen, Bulle Decarpentries
Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Sylvie Pialat
Executive producer: Gwennaelle Libert
Director of photography: Jean-Francois Hensgens
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Sophie Vercruysse
Casting directors: Gigi Akoka, Amine Louadni
International sales: Indie Sales

No rating, 112 minutes