More than a decade after the worldwide financial crisis of 2007–08, what does globalization mean today? Filmmaker-philosopher Jean-Daniel Lafond takes us behind the scenes of the International Economic Forum of the Americas, a massive annual gathering at which economists, financiers and politicians hold forth on the key issues of the day. Featuring first-hand testimonials by nearly two dozen influential men and women, The End of Certainties unfolds as a multi-voice meditation on the state of the world. This observational documentary offers a cogent assessment of globalization—and its ideals, disillusionment, fears and hopes—and the quest for a new humanism, characterized by greater inclusiveness and fairness.
Revolutions—in digital, robotics, artificial intelligence, technology, communications and energy—are changing our world, but there is no true transnational political and commercial leadership ready to deal with that unstoppable evolution. And that clearly signals the end of certainties.
The International Economic Forum of the Americas (FEIA) called into question globalization, along with the idea of international trade without borders (and often, without rules). The IEFA suggested taking a step back, as well as engaging in dialogue and thinking to get a better idea of the profound political, economic and sociocultural changes sweeping our planet.
Gil Rémillard, founding chairman of the IEFA, convinced me that we were building a new world, but the main problem was that we were looking at tiny pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle with no idea what the picture would look like in the end.
Today, ten years on from the Great Recession of 2008–09, we are worried. We know there is little room to manoeuvre, that inequities and upheavals of all kinds are growing, and that the time has come not only to embrace change but to manage it. In that sense, the good news is that the communications revolution has the potential to set us on the path to a “new universal humanism” founded on more inclusive, fairer distribution of wealth.
But there is still a long journey ahead. The planet is ailing, global warming is undeniable, and the direct and collateral damage—on migrant populations, for example—is enormous and steadily worsening. Among the Inuit of the Arctic, the impacts are increasingly less reversible. In a nutshell, this film, in surveying the current state of affairs and sounding out the key players in globalization, dares to advance a utopian vision as old as the world: one that rejects the idea that, as Thomas Hobbes put it, man is condemned to be a wolf to man.
Globalization has occasioned a world in transition and raised as many fears as hopes. Embracing change is not an easy thing: it will lead us toward a new world, but it remains to be proven whether that new world will represent a further step toward the humanization of humankind.
Jean-Daniel Lafond, November 2020
NFB: What prompted you to look at the state of globalization today?
Jean-Daniel Lafond: The catalyst was another film I made, The Barbarian Files, back in 1999. I saw this as one last way to revisit the 20th century and shine a light on the coming century. That earlier film, which was about war, senseless violence, poverty and outcasts, included an exploration of finance, economics, capitalism and globalization. I had shot part of it at the Montreal Stock Exchange, which at the time was occupied by activists opposed to globalization. It’s a pretty strong scene, with young non-violent protesters getting beaten up. There was also a conversation with an anti-globalization activist and footage of the demonstrations from May 25 to 27, 1998, at the 4th Montreal Conference on Globalized Economies, the basis of the IEFA [International Economic Forum of the Americas]. So that’s what sparked my interest in the event, which was still in its infancy. Around 300 people in a group called SalAMI had mobilized to protest the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (AMI in French) and were blocking access to the Sheraton Hotel. There as well, the protesters were beaten and there were several arrests. Those were two sequences in a film that discussed many other things. But they were especially troubling to me, and I kept on thinking about them.
Twenty years separate The Barbarian Files from The End of Certainties: What kept you busy in the meantime, and how has your perspective on the subject evolved?
In subsequent years I made many films, including Le faiseur de théâtre, Last Call for Cuba, Salam Iran, American Fugitive and Madwoman of God, which was my last one for a while. The reason was that for five years, I accompanied my wife, Michaëlle Jean, in her duties as Canada’s Governor General and I was 100% taken up with that. Though that period provided ample opportunities to observe the world, I couldn’t film what I was observing. During that time I became part of a completely different world; I took part in more than 40 state visits and went places where I never would have been allowed to take a camera. After Michaëlle’s mandate ended, I went back to filmmaking with A Woman of Purpose, which sort of sums up that time spent at Rideau Hall and touring the world.
In 2016, Gil Rémillard, founder of the International Economic Forum of the Americas, opened the doors to the event for me as an observer; but more in my role as a philosopher as opposed to a filmmaker. That’s when I decided to take the venture seriously; to enter this forum, which he’d founded in 1995, and which I’d previously had the opportunity to document on film—but from a different side, to say the least!
How important is this event, which became the subject of The End of Certainties?
The 2017 Conference of Montreal welcomed 4,300 participants and 250 guest speakers. I felt it was the ideal opportunity for anyone looking to better understand the various aspects of the global economy, in all regions of the world. The film was shot between 2017 and 2019, specifically at the Montreal and Paris conferences. I had full freedom to observe, participate, understand—and that’s when the film was born.
Who is the audience for your film?
There are lots of people who can’t see what goes on at the Forum, because not everyone can attend. I wanted my film to show them what happens there, and I think anyone who has a few questions about globalization and the state of the world can get something out of it. I hope viewers will see it as a work by a filmmaker-philosopher who wants to start a conversation, and who believes that we still have a chance to “humanize humanity.” That it’s not “game over” yet. In these times, that’s something worth thinking about.
What sort of impact do you hope to achieve with your documentary?
To me, the impact of a film like The End of Certainties is to open a gateway, and not create hatred of the Other (something Trump, for instance, has done a very good job of). I’m not an economist, nor am I a capitalist, in fact: I want to know what’s going on and what chances we have of making it through. It was very important to me that the words of the protagonists be accessible, understandable, to just about anyone, and that they address the Other, through dialogue. In so doing, I wanted to destroy certain clichés.
Some of the outlooks in the film are rather worrisome, while others are more positive. Where do you see yourself in all this?
In the beginning, before shooting started in 2017, I was a humanist. And I still am. That’s fundamental. The only thing that will save us is humanism. We need more humanism in humanity; otherwise it’s impossible. But it’s true that there are two sides in the film. The darker side creates a lot of uncertainty, but at the same time there’s hope: globalization might not have been entirely stupid. Except, the first edition of the Great Book of Globalization was a failure. It didn’t go well. Since then, we’ve been trying to rewrite that book, because it deserves a thorough reworking with a more inclusive foundation. The chasm is deep and wide: the first wave of globalization left far too many people behind. The most clear-sighted people in the film, Paul Desmarais, Jr., and Gérard Mestrallet, for example, can see that: we need renewed pacts of solidarity. And that’s a wonderful project. But to succeed, we’ll need to walk the talk. There are some avenues towards solutions in the film. These issues form a huge part of the urgent challenges facing us in the 21st century. The film states the uncertainties, but it also tries to say that all is not lost.
It might be worth updating this Q&A a few years from now, to see how the many topics explored in the film have evolved. Are you thinking of continuing the project?
Right now I’m working on another project, but at the same time one can certainly see it has connections to The End of Certainties. It’s a film about the power of the arts as a tool for social change, a subject directly linked to the mission of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, of which I am the co-founder and co-president. The Foundation works to fight exclusion and racism. We work with marginalized youth aged 17 to 30 from Black and Indigenous communities in particular. Using the power of arts and culture, we give them voices. We organize forums nationally and work with most of the major museums in the country. This project is very important to me because it’s a way to show what’s being done, and what can still be done, to reduce inequalities.
Jean-Daniel Lafond, André Picard
Directors of photography
Pamela Elizabeth Grimaud