‘Yes Men’ fight hubris with humor

    You could say it was all Michael Moore’s fault, with his single-handed introduction of the activist-documentary to mainstream film. Or possibly Johnathan Swift’s 18th-century mockery of leaders by pretending to speak for those in power. But regardless of where the blame falls, two activist/artists named Andy Bichilbaum and Mike Bonanno still have a lot of explaining to do. As the leaders of an international group of pranksters calling themselves “The Yes Men,” Bichilbaum and Bonanno use a nefarious process they call “identity correction” to impersonate powerful groups and cause mayhem at respected business conferences while enjoying the free food. The upcoming documentary film, “The Yes Men”, follows Bichilbaum, Bonanno and several of their “assistants” through the course of one such impersonation involving the World Trade Organization.

    “Identity correction” is much like identity theft, except instead of using a person’s stolen identity to obtain money for criminal acts, the Yes Men steal the identity of the organizations they see as the “real” criminals and take what they see as these organizations’ “criminal policies” to their natural conclusion.

    Taking the WTO policy of outsourcing to one natural conclusion, Bichilbaum and Bonanno proposed a businessman’s suit of the future which would allow managers to give electric shocks to their workers in India from a control panel in the suit, conveniently located on the end of a three-foot long inflatable gold phallus.

    It’s a difficult decision whether to be more amused or scared by the fact that the business leaders of America play along with these appalling pranks. In “the WTO,” men and women in expensive suits agree politely that, yes, slavery was a more efficient system than our labor market today. It depends on whether the viewer considers “The Yes Men” to be more of a comedy or a political movie. Another policy “explanation” involves a WTO program to send “recycled” hamburgers from McDonald’s to those less fortunate in Africa and South America.

    As a comedy, it succeeds brilliantly. Words cannot describe the laughter that such playful civil disobedience evokes. It’s one-part “Jackass,” two-parts “Office Space,” with a little bit of Chauncey Gardener from “Being There” sprinkled on top.

    Yet as a political movie, “The Yes Men” is nothing to scoff at. While recent politico-documentaries like Moore’s various video screeds offer only one perspective and narrate to you what conclusions to make, “The Yes Men” resists being overly preachy and works from a surprising variety of perspectives.

    The Guardian recently caught up with Bichilbaum and Bonanno on one of their misinformation tours, and gave them a chance to explain themselves:

    GUARDIAN: Why haven’t you been fed to the bears, or at least arrested? Isn’t what you do illegal?

    The Yes Men: Perhaps it is! And we don’t know! Bears would be too good for us, but our targets don’t want the risk. At least that’s our theory. Anytime anyone has done something about us — saying they “deplore” us, etc. — they’ve looked ridiculous to the press. On the other hand, what we do might not be illegal. Lawyers don’t seem to know; the ones we’ve asked can’t point to such-and-such a law that means we’re in trouble.

    G: Do you think that what you are doing is making a difference?

    YM: We guesstimate that it is, somehow, somewhere. And we’re having a lot of fun with it anyhow, so even if not, it’s not like we’re bigger fools than we obviously are. And either way, it’s better than sitting on our asses waiting for the world to change on its own.

    G: After all of these silly stunts with the WTO, what do you have planned next?

    YM: Right now, we’re out on the road with our Bush campaign. It’s called the “Yes Bush Can!” campaign, and we’re out there trying to correct the identity of George [W.] Bush more honestly than Bush can speak himself. Like, where he said he has a healthy forest initiative, we go out and explain what the “healthy forest initiative” really is — people cutting down as many trees as possible. Or the “clear skies” initiative, which allows more pollutants into the atmosphere. I mean, these ironies are already there, so all we do is assume the voice of Bush’s campaign and explain what the goals of these policies really are.

    G: With the success of Michael Moore and “The Daily Show,” it looks like a mockery-type campaign is getting through to people. Why do you think that is?

    YM: It’s because the media isn’t doing their job. There’s so much that desperately needs to be explored now, and all of these new documentaries are about that.

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