The Yes Men Fix the World
Merry pranksters 2.0
The Yes Men Fix the World
Directed by Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno, Kurt Engfehr
Cast: Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno
Two guys in an undisclosed location create counterfeit websites of real corporations. If this sounds like part of an identity theft scheme, well, it is. But instead of phishing for your personal information, the pranksters, known as The Yes Men, quietly wait until they’re invited to industry conferences and television studios. Once there, The Yes Men steal (or at least borrow) the identities of multinational corporations like Halliburton, Exxon and Dow Chemical.
The Yes Men Fix the World documents the exploits of leading Yes Men-bers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno as they impersonate the world's power brokers and put words in their mouths. Sort of like a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, but with a sincere heart.
The film opens with footage from 2004, when the BBC mistook The Yes Men’s “DowEthics” webpage as a real arm of Dow Chemical Company and invited a representative to appear on live television. At issue was the 20-year anniversary of the infamous chemical leak in a Bhopal, India fertilizer plant that killed thousands and sickened hundreds of thousands. At the time of the spill, the fertilizer plant was owned by Union Carbide, which was subsequently acquired by Dow, making Dow responsible for Union Carbide’s liabilities. Only about $1,000 worth of remunerations per victim had been paid, and on the 20th anniversary of the spill, the BBC wanted a Dow Chemical representative to comment. The Yes Men accepted the invitation to address the BBC’s 300 million viewers on behalf of Dow.
We watch as Bonanno and Bichlbaum walk from their hotel to the BBC offices in Paris. Bichlbaum is petrified at the magnitude of the stage he’s about to step onto. “This is like, a million times larger than any audience we’ve ever had,” he admits. When the cameras go live, Bichlbaum, posing as Dow Chemical spokesperson Jude Finisterra, announces that Dow is taking full responsibility for the chemical leak that continues to contaminate the area's drinking water to this day. The company, he says, will allocate $12 billion to completely clean up the site and compensate the people of Bhopal.
In the moments after this announcement, Dow Chemical stock dropped by more than 3 percent, translating into $2 billion of the company’s net worth.
The movie continues in this fashion, showing the planning, preparation and execution of Yes Men stunts, typically performed in their trademark cheap and ill-fitting business suits.
In between the stunts, Bonanno’s narrative explains that what The Yes Men are battling, in their absurd way, are the economic theories articulated by the late Milton Friedman. The recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics championed the freedom of capital to regulate itself and solve any problems it creates—making some people extremely rich in the process. Friedman’s theories are behind the deregulation of the energy market, as well as the deregulation of the banking industry that lead to worldwide financial collapse. Friedman is the poster child to a host of right-wing think tank representatives—many of whom are happy to go in front of The Yes Men’s camera, although they don’t seem to understand what the interviews are really for.
The low-budget documentary benefits from the co-direction of Kurt Engfehr (who co-produced and edited Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11) and the editing of April Merl. Merl did a masterful job of splicing raw stunt footage with media coverage, narration and even an artistic reconstruction of The Yes Men’s underground location. The film is a little rough around the edges by Hollywood standards, but this dishevelment, like The Yes Men’s ill-fitting suits, seems intentional and doesn’t detract from the execution.
I should know. I wore one of those suits 18 years ago, when I was a proto-Yes Man for a day. I went to college in Oregon with Mike Bonanno, who at the time went by his legal name, Igor Vamos (with a name like that, who needs an alias?).
Vamos organized a group called the Reed College Guerilla Theater of the Absurd. In one stunt, they secured 300 Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and swapped their voice boxes, so that GI Joe suggested “Let’s go shopping!” while Barbie proclaimed “Revenge will be mine!” The dolls were then snuck back onto toy store shelves and sold. Another stunt went down during a heated citywide debate over renaming a prominent Portland street as Martin Luther King Boulevard. In a midnight operation, Vamos and company changed the street signs of Grand Avenue to Malcom X Street. Even then, Vamos’ counterfeiting skills were professional.
I donned a frumpy gray suit when Vice President Dan Quayle came to Portland to give a speech in support of Senator Bob Packwood, and I signed on as a “Reverse Peristalsis Painter.” Peristalsis is the series of muscle contractions that move food through the digestive system.
We assembled in a downtown parking garage and gorged on mashed potatoes from one of three trays. One tray contained red food-colored mashed potatoes, another tray contained plain white mashed potatoes. The third tray, which I ate from, contained blue.
As we left the parking garage we drank ipecac, a vomit-inducing syrup, and marched to the venue where we lined up on the street in order. We stood there casually until the ipecac kicked in, resulting in a stripe of red, white and blue splotches of puke on the sidewalk. [Watch the video here: http://bit.ly/4AoMtz]
Now that they’ve moved into the spotlight, it remains to be seen how long Vamos and Jacques Servin (the real name of Andy Bichlbaum) will be able to continue their current run of corporate identity theft before they’re too recognizable to pull it off.
Cynics will argue that what The Yes Men have been able to accomplish thus far hasn’t resulted in anything meaningful. But the movie’s end suggests otherwise: The Yes Men print 100,000 copies of a fake issue of the New York Times and distribute the copies around New York. The headlines proclaim “Iraq War Ends,” “Patriot Act Repealed” and “National Health Insurance Act Passes.” The fake papers elicit smiles, laughter and cheers from hardened New Yorkers, giving hope that The Yes Men are on the right side of history. Even if you don’t call yourself an activist, it’s inspiring to think that art and fun might have a place in forging a better planet.