The White Knights (Les chevaliers blancs)
France/Belgium (2015) Dir. Joachim Lafosse
Is there a fine line between charity and subterfuge, where doing something that benefits two parties is a case of the ends justifying the means? If the ultimate objective is to provide mutual happiness is muddying the facts that serious a crime? Joachim Lafosse’s fact based drama asks this question despite knowing he can’t offer any answers.
Based on the Zoé’s Ark controversy of 2007, Jacques Arnault (Vincent Lindon) leads a team from the French charity organisation Move For Kids to an unnamed African country to help orphaned kids. The promise is the children will be vaccinated, given a home and an education after which they are returned to their villages aged 18 in better health and better qualified for adult life.
However, whilst the organisation is genuine they neglect to mention the children will be taken to France and not staying in their homeland. They in fact have 300 parents in France looking to adopt, hence the age of the orphans restricted to under-five years old. But the group’s plans are foiled when village chiefs are equally dishonest over money and poor parents try to hand over their children for the free medical care.
Lafosse is in the difficult position of making a film about a contentious real life situation rife with questionable morality whilst remaining non-judgemental with his narrative. Yet he does just that, sticking to the (dramatised) facts and letting the audience decide the rights and wrongs, putting us in a difficult position as the line between altruism and exploitation is blurred, yet at face value the nobility of the mission has some merit.
The real Zoé’s Ark was a genuine NGO whose workers landed in Chad in 2007 offering 103 orphans a new life but their methods were underhanded. When stopped while taking the kids out of the country their claim was they were war orphans from Darfur, complete with fake bandages (also incorporated in the film) but most where Chadians. The Chad government arrested the group for child abduction and later convicted in France.
In this fictional account, Arnault and his group aren’t portrayed as people possessing any discernible malicious intent or masterminds of a pernicious criminal child trafficking ring. Their motives have a genuine foundation – giving infertile couples the chance to become parents and give the children a chance at a prosperous future away from their current impoverished homeland.
Clearly they feel no shame in what they are doing, having invited journalist Françoise Dubois (Valérie Donzelli) to document their mission but like the naïve Africans, she isn’t made fully aware of the facts. She begins as a passive observer in awe of the group’s philanthropy but her inquisitive nature turns to suspicion and subsequent and concern at their dishonest machinations.
Also in the same situation is French speaking native Bintou (Bintou Rimtobaye), acting as translator for the group and onboard with their plan at face value, but unlike Françoise she is slower to pick up on the unlawful minutiae of their endeavours. This would be due to her fellow compatriots being equally corrupt in their motives, hoping Arnault wouldn’t notice that some of the kids being handed over are under five years old and genuinely orphaned.
Just as Randy Newman once sang “It’s money that matters” and the village leaders have no compunction with exchanging an innocent young life for a extra quid in their coffers but Arnault is onto them. One of his strengths is also a weakness, the ability to get things done and sway things his way, even if it means raising his voice and playing the tough guy.
But this doesn’t always yield the results he wants, forcing a change of plan when a crisis point is reached. The interesting thing is Arnault doesn’t come across as a bad man and we believe that his intentions are honourable. We feel his frustration at being played by greedy village chiefs and even when prospective adopters in France pull out, but as the truth is gradually revealed, the impetus for his frustration might not be so pure.
The children are innocent pawns in essentially a cruel and cynical trade deal and Lafosse never loses sight of this. How can we stay objective watching Arnault and a village chief establish which kids fit the criteria for help like they are discussing carpet samples? It’s heartbreaking to see mothers wilfully trying to hand their kids over to the French for a better life, a selfless act of loving in their eyes, inconceivable to the French.
Yet by way of textural justification, the spartan landscapes of desert plains, outdated transport and amenities, and meagre living standards of the natives act as a permanent, ominous reminder of what the kids are going to grow up in, making the chic streets of Paris a no brainer as an alternative.
Jean-Francois Hensgens’ camera passively captures the desolation of the barren location but is less placid in following the cast around, getting in close enough to record every furrow of Arnault’s brow, the exasperation in others as the pressure mounts, and the moral quandary Françoise becomes mired in. Yet the greatest moment is the climax, a sudden rush of febrile energy and stark confusion the intensity of which is chilling.
Lafosse may have dramatised a real life situation with this film but he doesn’t direct it like a drama, opting for a natural almost documentary feel to it, letting the conversations and dialogue flow as if it was being improvised. In casting Vincent Lindon, he gets an actor whose made a career of playing credible everyman roles yet has that gravitas and presence to draw us into the scene.
The White Knights is a deliciously ironic title for this film, leaving Lafosse plenty of room to demonstrate why without having to explain it. As an insightful and damning fictional exposé on corrupt charities, it’s impact is quietly brutal and justly thought provoking with its moral ambiguity.