Sunday, April 24, 2016

SFIFF ’16: The White Knights

The line between humanitarianism and human trafficking is hardly what you would call “fine.” there is a big, fat demarcation there. Yet somehow the NGO Zoe’s Ark still had trouble keeping on the right side. Their “enthusiastic” efforts to place orphans with French families remains controversial in both Chad and France. Their fictional analog, Move for People, will get some of benefit of the doubt. Even so, the paving on road to Hell is still the same as it ever was. Even if they had good intentions, they certainly make an appalling mess of things in Joachim Lafosse’s The White Knights (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

When Move for People’s Jacques Arnault arrives in-country, his top priorities are “acquiring” orphans five-years-old or younger from the surrounding village chiefs and securing air transportation out of the country. It almost seems like he foresees a need to leave in a hurry. Nevertheless, he has approved the presence of an embedded journalist to document their work. Of course, he neglected to tell her the organization is facing an official investigation in France. That little tidbit she learns from her editor after settling in at the NGO’s compound.

The irony (really, one of several) is Arnault’s scheme would not be so bad if the chief’s more scrupulously followed their instructions. Unfortunately, we soon suspect many parents have been convinced to give up their children so they can receive medical treatment and an education, with the expectation they can readily be visited.

There is plenty of blame to go around in this ripped-from-the-headlines morality play, starting with the NGO, but also including the chiefs and villagers, as well as the journalist who largely succumbs to Arnault’s gruff charm. He is played by Vincent Lindon, so it is hard to judge her too harshly. What is really shocking is how true-to-life the narrative is. Frankly, White Knights could be used as an infomercial for Guidestar and other non-profit watchdogs.

Lindon does his thing, blustering and bullying those who start to doubt, while tearing up when talking to prospective adoptive parents on the phone. The duality of his persona well suits Lafosse’s equivocal tone. Even when the bottom completely falls out of Move for People’s scheme, it is still hard to judge their intentions with certainty.

White Knights is the sort of ensemble piece that is best served by actors blending in rather than standing out. In that respect, it is remarkable to see Louise Bourgoin (so glamorous in The Girl from Monaco) disappear into the role of Laura Turine, Arnault’s ardent worker bee deputy. However, Reda Kateb brings some edge as their fixer, Xavier Lipert.

Even with the prominent names attached to White Knights, its jaundiced view of NGO do-goodery will not likely endear it critics and art-house programmers. It is just too subtle and challenging. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing simplistic about it. Recommended for Francophiles and internationalist skeptics, White Knights screens tomorrow (4/25), Wednesday (4/27), and Friday (4/29), as part of this year’s SFIFF.