A filmmaker known for his roiling domestic horror stories set in his native Belgium (“Private Property,” “Our Children”), Joachim Lafosse observes a tragedy unfolding far beyond Western borders — though hardly without Western involvement — in “The White Knights,” an ironically titled, coolly damning portrait of French NGO workers embroiled in the overseas adoption trade. Inspired by the 2007 Zoe’s Ark scandal implicating humanitarian workers in the abduction of more than 100 African children, this study of an impossible situation growing steadily worse proceeds with a calm, procedural-style detachment that rises to a despairing pitch by the closing reels, as the characters confront the full consequences of ostensibly good intentions gone awry. Lafosse’s gift for sustained emotional tension and moral ambiguity serves him well in this impressive if unshowy entree into big-canvas filmmaking, though its tough subject matter and lack of easy entry points signify a difficult commercial road ahead.
In his best films — including the underrated “Private Lessons” (2008), a deliciously dark comedy about a kinky teacher-student relationship — Lafosse has proven himself a master of fraught interpersonal dynamics, skillfully escalating the drama by incremental degrees as physical, emotional and moral boundaries are continually transgressed. In “The White Knights,” the dynamics are professional rather than familial, but lines are crossed all the same — many of them by Jacques Arnault (Vincent Lindon), the head of a charity organization known as Move for Kids, which is trying to rescue as many as 300 young orphans from an unspecified, war-torn African country and find them adoptive parents in France. Lindon, who recently won the best actor prize at Cannes for his performance as a guileless, working-class Everyman in “The Measure of a Man,” is no less outstanding here as a determined man of action who sometimes barks, sometimes cajoles, and always seems to be in control.
Jacques leads a team of volunteers with his girlfriend, Laura (a flinty Louise Bourgoin), whose fierce devotion to the cause matches his own. Another key figure here is Xavier (Reda Kateb), who arranges (not without difficulty) the use of a small plane that will allow them safe travel to meet with African village leaders, who, in exchange for a fee, will hand over young orphans in need of a home. This seemingly worthy cause is immediately polluted by deception on both sides of the negotiation: The chieftains are careless at best, and dishonest at worst, in terms of ensuring the kids in question really are parentless and/or meet the charity’s 5-and-under requirement. (The organization’s scant resources, and need to draw restrictions on aid, are among the harsh everyday realities grappled with here.) But that arguably pales next to the lies of Jacques and his volunteers, who have led the villagers to believe their children will be fed, sheltered and educated at nearby health centers, when in reality they will be flown overseas and adopted by French families.
“We’re not buying kids,” Jacques rationalizes, preferring to think he’s paying for services rendered. At another point, he sentimentalizes about the worthiness of the outcome: “Even one kid saved makes it worth it.” What lends “The White Knights” its powerful moral undertow is the way it complicates our response to that statement. The sketchiness of the operation doesn’t quite obscure the fact that the volunteers are all skilled, devoted professionals who want nothing more than to shower the kids with love, compassion and much-needed medical attention. And we watch with a certain admiration for Jacques’ reckless courage whenever he bends the rules and the truth in order to complete his mission, whether he’s in a car dodging bullets on a dangerous road, or contriving a lie about a young girl’s illness in order to justify commandeering the plane.
From the outset, the screenplay (liberally adapted from Francois-Xavier Pinte and Geoffrey d’Ursel’s book about the Zoe’s Ark affair) delves into the nuts and bolts of the operation, steeping us in process and logistics, and spending little time on individual backstories. Yet the extreme focus on how merely amplifies the underlying question of why, and the characters’ lives are so inextricably bound up in their work that their personalities can’t help but bleed through, especially in their frequently tetchy group interactions. Lafosse captures the tedium and difficulty of relief work, the petty disagreements over strategy and ethics, and the close-quarters claustrophobia that develops even in these wide-open desert environs. Nearly every scene in “The White Knights” is driven by a sense of not menace or danger, but frustration — and a dawning awareness that the potential for good, life-saving action is being squandered in an endless waiting game.
Still further complications are introduced via the character of Francoise (the actress and director Valerie Donzelli), a journalist who has embedded herself with Move for Kids and is documenting their process. The presence of an outsider heightens the tensions within the group, while underlining the question of whether their primary obligation is to the children or the truth — a question that gets progressively blurred as Francoise, too, is drawn into a moral and emotional gray zone. And then there is Bintou (Bintou Rimtobaye), a French-speaking African woman who is hired as an interpreter between Jacques and the locals, and whose calm observation of the group’s activities adds yet another quiet layer of scrutiny.
Yet for the most part, “The White Knights” succeeds in building a critical argument while refusing the easy complacency of judgment. The camera, as wielded by Jean-Francois Hensgens (who also lensed Lafosse’s “Our Children” and his short film “Avant les mots”), occasionally eavesdrops but more often seems to be simply recording — following the characters as they move from one place to the next, and never calling overt attention to the parched, desolate beauty of their surroundings. The score, by the electronic band Apparat, is sparingly used, but a recurring musical cue provides a steady backbeat of emotion, never more so than in the scene of confusion and futility that gives the film its devastating final image. Our children, indeed.