“Rooaaooaarrrrr!” So opens the DVD of The Yes Men, as the Yes Men themselves—Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno—growl along wit the MGM lion. Their commentary for the DVD, together on one track, along with the film’s directors Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, and Sarah Price, then takes up the explanation of their project—why they targeted the WTO, as one instance of global corporate depravity—essentially giving you the sort of background material you might find at their chucky-full, wonderfully agitating website,
. As they tell it, quite honestly, their satire has been taken seriously by self-important corporateers, and they oblige. As they put it in the film, “We’re giving them what we think they want.”
As The Yes Men documents, their efforts to disrupt or draw attention to the nefarious workings of military-corporate-government in-bedness. Strangely, as the film shows, the Yes Men are rarely noticed by those for whom they are making trouble. Instead, Bichlbaum and Bonanno’s prankster-style direct activism more often is regarded as “real” participation, as their language mimics that of their targets, convincing said targets (mostly, international conference gatherings, audiences full of suits armed with notepads and Blackberrys) that they’re all in agreement as to the proper exploitations of resources and populations. Looking to reveal the illogical and hypocritical practices of institutions that habitually “put profits ahead of everything else,” the Yes Men take on their targets by website antics and face to face, as they attend a conference or address a group of people in suits. Unlike fellow activist Michael Moore, however, the Yes Men, because they are so amenable, tend to be invited to such events.
As revealed in The Yes Men, Andy and Mike deploy a particular mix of overt and covert tactics. One of their earliest interventions was online, that bastion of anonymity in a mass media age. At the start of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, they were asked to design a George W. Bush parody site; the address was similar enough to the real thing that earnest supporters checked it in search of information on their man, only to be surprised that this information pointed out that he was not the “environmental governor,” as his campaign asserted, but rather had dismantled all sorts of environmental protections.
Their interventionist work evolved so that they would appear at sites in person, impersonating the “educated people” (“with PhDs,” note the Yes Men) who shape and administer global corporate policy. Bonanno describes the process of “identity correction,” a means to address “these things that are not really presenting themselves accurately: we want to bring that out. We think the WTO is doing all these terrible things that are hurting people and they’re saying the exact opposite. And so, we’re interested in correcting their identity… We target people we see as ‘criminals’ and we steal their identity in order to make them honest, or try and present a more honest face.” Working together, Bichlbaum and Bonanno have endeavored to “create public spectacles that in some kind of poetic way reveal something about our culture that’s profoundly a problem.”
Much of what goes on in The Yes Men is rather poetic. The film follows a set of actions developed around the World Trade Organization, prefaced by fellow dissenter Michael Moore’s description: “The WTO was supposed to be a United Nations of Commerce,” he says, established originally to “help countries who are developing, so that the world community could help raise them out of poverty… In fact, the organization has allowed wealthy countries to exploit developing populations even further.” Shortly after the Yes Men designed another website, gatt.org, whose address is similar to that of the WTO’s earlier incarnation, the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), other organizations took it seriously, apparently not noticing its excess and indictment of organization, and invited the makers to come speak at a meeting. Being the Yes Men, Bichlbaum and Bonanno said yes.
Having been invited to speak at a conference in Austria, where the audience dutifully nodded and took notes, though Bichlbaum advocated selling “votes” to highest bidders, the Yes Men decide they’ve been too subtle. And so they devise an outrageous stunt for their next performance as the WTO, at an August 2001 trade conference called “Textiles of the Future,” in Tampere, Finland. Bichlbaum, posing as “Hank Hardy Unruh,” presents a paper on their new technology, offered as a management technique: the monitoring of “remote labor” via a tv mounted on a three-foot long inflatable phallus, attached to a gold lamé bodysuit (“My favorite part,” says Price, “is where you struggle with the inflation”). He begins his talk in a business suit designed to rip away to reveal the lamé and the penis, which, he notes, also allows the wearer to administer long-distance electric shocks to induce harder, um, work. The audience nods and takes notes.
For the commentary track, the filmmakers ask Andy and Mike basic questions about their methods and aims, and fill in concerning their own trickery (“We just told them that we were making a film about the WTO”). As they show clips from Birth of a Nation to demonstrate the benefits of slavery, the commentators notice that someone in the conference audience “should have noticed” the egregious affront represented by Griffith’s infamous film. “I was just nervous,” says Price. “I expected something to happen.” And yet… nothing.
The one audience in the film who does notice something is unreasonable in the Yes Men’s performance is a group of students at university in Plattsburgh, NY, where the Yes Men go to rehearse a performance, in which they advocate for Re-Burger, a company making recycled hamburgers. Their colorful animated visual aids impress on their audience that the recycling has to do with human waste, and the intended “customers” and “consumers” are those underprivileged, un-white others round the world who are so desperate even to eat that they won’t much mind the sources of their nutrition. The kids in this classroom, at least, are horrified by the proposal—even after they’ve eaten passed-out hamburgers that emulate the product the Yes Men are pitching. The kids pelt the presenters with right-minded, morally astute questions, to the point that several end up walking out in disgust. At last, the Yes Men have found someone who will say no.
At a time when the Bush administration sets policies according to how much money might be made by select corporations, the Yes Men’s efforts are at once worthy, smart, very funny, and also, small. “What can’t corporations get away with?” they ask. It’s true that the WTO eventually noticed the Yes Men’s tomfoolery (the organization offered a press release, saying it “deplored” their actions, upon which the Yes Men offered their own press release, “deploring” the WTO right back). The DVD offers yet another avenue to the Yes Men’s visibility, and, as they hope out loud, inspiration for others to make trouble in their own ways.