There’s a palpable sense of danger that runs throughout Joachim Lafosse’s “The White Knights,” and despite a scenario that involves a humanitarian mission in an war-torn region in Africa, it’s telling that the characters feel it well after the audience. After establishing himself as one of the world’s most fearless filmmakers with the double-fisted gut punch of his 2006 debut “Private Property,” which oversaw the falling out between a pair of disturbingly close twin brothers (Jeremie Renier and Yannick Renier) and their mother (Isabelle Huppert), and 2012’s “Our Children” that detailed the plight of a mother (Emilie Dequenne) slowly suffocated by the demands of her brood and her overbearing father-in-law, the Belgian writer/director has made a habit of raising provocative questions about the darkest aspects of human nature in thrillingly cinematic terms.
“The White Knights” is Lafosse’s most ambitious work to date, and perhaps his most mischievous, taking inspiration from the real life events involving Zoé’s Ark, a French non-profit organization that set out to rescue orphans from the Sudan and were alleged to abduct 103 children from Chad in an ill-conceived effort to meet their quota in 2007. Shot in Morocco, Lafosse takes the desert setting to lend a “Lawrence of Arabia” level of grandeur to the story, and adds an urgent, bombastic score that suggests the calvary is coming, but gradually shows how “Move for Kids,” a well-intentioned European NGO suffers one small indignity after another upon their arrival in Africa and become reckless in trying to salvage their goodwill efforts, prompting their videographer (Valerie Donzelli) to say at one point, “I want to show your testimony that not all aid workers are scumbags.” That Lafosse has recruited an incredible ensemble of actors including recent Cannes Best Actor winner Vincent Lindon, Louise Bourgoin and Stéphane Bissot to play the morally distressed humanitarians, only adds to this multidimensional look at their work.
Few would dare take such a position, but in doing so, Lafosse reveals the risk of participating in the facile narrative that puts all such philanthropic operations in a noble light, ignoring the occasionally questionable motives of the all-too-human players involved and diminishing the success of the genuinely important missions that do fully go according to plan. Spiked with a perverse sense of humor, “The White Knights” is also the filmmaker’s most accessible film to date, entertaining as much as it engages in relevant real-world concerns about globalization and shortly after the film rocked audiences in Toronto, Lafosse spoke via a translator about his desire to make something that could reach a wider swath of people, filming in relentless heat and whether he feels a responsibility to take on subject matter others wouldn’t with a 10-foot pole.
How did you get interested in this?
I like the idea that the road to Hell is paved on good intentions and with this true story, you have the possibility to make an adventure movie — how to help African people, and to go into the narrative of what it means for westerners and white men to want to aid Africa. It was just one example among others, but this was the one that was most well-known in France. This film was an opportunity to treat a challenging subject with a group of people in an environment that was cinematically interesting and to create a platform for the audience to freely put their own perspective on the action of the aid workers, and for them to get a sense or feel how they feel about it.
How did the visual scheme for this come about? There’s a lot of master shots, which enabled everybody to be in the frame at the same time.
There was an inspiration to show visually this immense desert and how in it, they all looked a little pathetic. All these people are in this environment that they don’t really belong to, and there’s an absurdity sometimes of seeing all these men in this desert environment, but also then the contrast of going deep into their psychology and their experience of it with closer and smaller shots.
The score only heightens that contrast – it sounds like a traditional, thumping action film when it’s inaction that you’re seeing.
It is an action film, but in a psychological sense — the essence of what these characters are confronted with, in terms of the challenges and questions and the human interactions, it is as dynamic as an action film. When I first heard about the Zoe’s Ark events, I really didn’t know what to think about it. I didn’t know where to position myself and I hope that’s also what the audience will feel, to question themselves about the truth.
Was there a detail you came across in your research that helped unlock this story for you?
That’s not how I went about it. I’ve never wanted to meet the real people. If I see the [real] people, I would stop to think and it would stop my imagination. This isn’t a movie for a museum. In fact, it’s my obsession with “not the truth.” I’m sure that the real people are really different, so there’s not that much research I do. It’s an inspiration. But I like Sidney Lumet movies, all of [which] are inspired by real, true events — “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “Dog Day Afternoon” — and I like the idea of doing a popular movie with a real moral question [at the center].
This seemed like a bigger production than your previous films. Did it actually feel any different for you?
Financially speaking, it’s double the budget of my previous films. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to maybe be more popular with my films, without giving up on the fundamental ideas I want to convey in film. I didn’t want to compromise in any way, so we raised more money to be able to be more ambitious with the set, the production, and make something that visually also is very compelling. This is first time where I work with more than 50 [extras], a lot of children, a big crew. We shot it in three months.
Was there a particularly challenging day of the shoot?
Yes, the first scene when the cars of the humanitarian mission drive past the village, we had a very big sandstorm and you see that in the image. It was unbelievable. But all the days were complicated. You have a lot of actors and we shot with more than 60 children less than five years old. The last sequence [in the film] when the children get out of the car, it was very hard because it was too hot in the car and we had 20 children in each car, so we could only shoot it just one time. After we said stop.
Having seen “Our Children,” do you feel a responsibility as a filmmaker to challenge the prevailing cultural narratives that are out there? It doesn’t seem like just any filmmaker would take on filicide or questioning humanitarianism as you do here?
[I’m interested] in the subject of when someone would like to do something good and, without reason, just emotion, they organize something very bad. With “Our Children,” you have a father-in-law, the doctor who would like to help a couple, and he begins to give a lot of gifts and you can see how the relationship begins to be dangerous. Here, it’s the same thing. You have a lot of humanitarian groups who decide to aid the Africans and they lose their reason. If the world was a better place just with good intentions, we would know it.