Suited participants chat and cast furtive looks around for the most advantageous person to approach, all while one man stands awkwardly amongst the informal throng, looking less than thrilled to be there. It could be any corporate networking happy hour — except this standoffish figure is Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro, and the venue is the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss resort town of Davos, an annual, invitation-only meeting accessible to only the most influential of global leaders and business elites. Bolsonaro is cornered, separately, by Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan and US Vice President and environmentalist Al Gore, who each express concern for the Amazon. Distrust bristles, barely veiled, under civil exchanges. Gore makes a faux pas by name-dropping a former military enemy of Bolsonaro’s as a mutual acquaintance; the subtext is unmissable when Bolsonaro, who regards conservation efforts as a threat to sovereignty, states he values the rainforest as a «resource». «We are not enemies, we just need to talk,» Bolsonaro tells Gore. «I am always eager to talk,» he replies. Words have scarcely felt so futile and hollow.
It is an eye-opening peek inside the WEF, which, in its fifty-year history has not allowed any independent film teams access behind the scenes — until this documentary from German director Marcus Vetter. The Forum is no glossy promotional vehicle for the WEF. It steps carefully, avoiding an overtly critical stance, but it does raise the question of whether the event’s model of civil niceties and polite discussions nudging at social change have failed, or are becoming obsolete in a newly populist era of brazen power. Have global affairs reached a state of urgency that requires stronger, bolder oppositional confrontation than mere talk? Greenpeace’s Morgan says the forum, which claims impartiality, is a complicit «sideshow» used by morally corrupted elites to generate positive PR, while they cynically continue business as usual — a «bubble of mega-groupthink» all the more dangerous because its rhetoric is that of making the world a better place. She suggests that of the participants (Nestle, under fire for its water policy, and Monsanto, slammed for its hybrid seeds, designed to be used only once in a bid to up profits, are both partners), 99% wish to safeguard an unethical status quo.
The film dedicates a lot of time to the WEF’s founder and chairman Klaus Schwab, now 81, a fascinatingly enigmatic figure, and careful to not give too much away. There is a sense of a genuinely heartfelt life project in his dedication to the organisation, which seems to consume all his waking hours (his wife, Hilde, his former secretary, works alongside him). «We need dialogue to understand each other,» he says of the WEF ethos, and his dream of a global village of decision-makers based on Ludwig Erhard’s idea of a socially committed market economy. «If you were a priest in a church, you would want to make the sinners come visit you on a Sunday,» he says of criticism that the forum legitimises the corrupt. He recalls a «crucial test» for the forum in 1973 when, despite boycott threats from multi-nationals, he invited a left-wing Brazilian theologist, Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, to bring a message from the favelas highlighting inequality. But amid panels on sustainable consumption, and the platforming of citizen-centric projects (start-up Zipline’s drone solution for delivering medical supplies in Rwanda is supported by WEF), the self-promotion of leaders as they court investment money is just as centre-stage. American president Donald Trump swoops in by Marine One helicopter with a narcissistic pomp that sets the stage for meetings with sycophantic corporation heads driven by the power of the dollar. Schwab names egoism as the main threat to our polarised world, saying it leads to a bunker mentality and populism — but as a man who favours cordial relations over confrontation, whether he is a force for good or ill is not something all agree on.
«It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference, and no-one is allowed to speak about water»
A firefighters conference
One attendee who insists Schwab, not to mention the 3,000 global figures he gathers annually, must do more, is Greta Thunberg. The young climate activist from Sweden attends with her father and is regarded unseriously as a quaint novelty by many of the other participants until her stark address hits home. «It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference, and no-one is allowed to speak about water,» she says of the hypocrisy of a conference that prizes success stories but is unwilling to admit their terrible price. Other voices also speak truth to power, including Dutch thinker Rutger Bregman, who caused a media stir when he brought up the elephant in the room — the problem of tax avoidance, and the rich not paying their fair share, as well as the hypocrisy of the 1,500 private jets that flew people in to hear the wrecking of the planet condemned. Edited into a choppy, whirlwind pace, that jumps back and forth from moment to moment over the WEF’s history, the film is so intent on jamming on significant snippets that time to really process or mull over the soundbites is lacking. But that might just be Davos to a tee: a frenzy of showy diplomacy, with little framework for holding participants to account. Fitting for a new climate of the highest stakes — the survival of human civilisation itself — the film gives the last word to Thunberg. Schwab reads from her letter calling upon him, and others with the power, to lead and embrace the future, rather than living in the past.