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The White Knights (Les Chevaliers blancs) with Vincent Lindon – Review
Escaping the domestic claustrophobia of a cramped apartment in After Love, Joachim Lafosse's The White Knights may take place across the vast plains of Africa but is no less tense, restrictive and naturalistic filmmaking from one of the most prominent rising stars of European cinema.
Released a week apart in the UK, the Belgian director's latter project may have been completed a year before the former but features as a real standout of the 2016 French Film Festival UK. Screen notes, acting as a disclaimer of sorts, state that The White Knights is 'Loosely based on real events' but this Vincent Lindon-led film is ostensibly a fictionalised retelling of the 2007 case of Zoe's Ark charity workers who were charged with abducting children from Chad in order to place them with foster families in France.
Successfully rendering his film emblematic of Western (here, specifically French) intervention in any part of the continent, Lafosse's war-torn setting is non-specific but dropped onto the tarmac shortly after the NGO team has landed, all are justifiably on edge from the outset. The hand-held camerawork of Jean-Francois Hensgens, whose work on After Love was unerring in its glacial composure, is shaky and unsettling and from within the cramped confines of a 4x4 gunshots ring out to emphasise the inherent dangers all around.
A compound, which forms the setting for most of the film, is both sanctuary and seclusion from the outside world but although they are there with a defined purpose - to rescue orphans, the malfunction of a plane vital to their plans entraps the group. There is a duplicity to Jacques' (Lindon - the chef d'equipe who leads from the front and carries the film on his more than capable shoulders) words and actions which muddy the moral waters: after lamenting the plane's technical issues, saying to local fixer Xavier (Reda Kateb) that they only have a month to complete their mission, he stands in front of a crowd of locals and states that the compound will be a haven for orphans for many years to come.
This is far more than a white lie, and the dishonesty risks having disastrous consequences. Snippets of information from Skype calls, disjointed telephone conversations and all-round unease suggest that the legality of this clandestine operation is questionable. The gradual delineation of the bigger picture is extremely well drawn but the film risks coming a-cropper when the crucially missing plane engine part proves impossible to obtain. Bickering, in-fighting and split loyalties become irritating and childish.
Ironically, it is the arrival of children that saves the adults from their petty squabbles. Will word of their operation reach the wrong ears, either locally or in France? Journalist Françoise (Valeria Donzelli), whose detached impartiality initially echoes our own, is drawn into the fray and so are we as which side of the line we stand becomes increasingly hard to ascertain. The NGO lies to the people and the chiefs of local villages lie in return to receive more money for their assistance in locating orphans. Official records are impossible to come by so what do they do if a child is being forcibly taken from their birth parents?
An escape across the desert for a plane headed to France draws The White Knights to a breathless confusion. The devastating ambiguity of its final frames are crushing, meaning this morally complex tale will stay with you long after its credits roll.