Kurt Engfehr, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, “The Yes Men Fix the World” (2009)
Well no, actually they don’t but that was a pretty good little attention-grabber. The Yes Men (Bichlbaum and Bonanno playing themselves) are two political activists whose modus operandi is to pose as faceless executives of real companies and bluff their way into conferences and public forums to pull off pranks that call attention to problems ignored by governments, global finance, corporations and mainstream news media. In the process of carrying out these stunts, the comedy duo exposes the hypocrisy, arrogance, greed and sheer emptiness behind the public face of the corporate world and the dangerous and often inhuman ideology and rhetoric it espouses.
In the form of a fly-on-the-wall / self-confessional home movie with crazy camera angles, giving the impression that any minute the entire enterprise will collapse spectacularly, the film breathlessly chronicles the Yes Men’s adventures (with faithful camera operator in tow) across the world. The structure is loose but basically linear; near its end the film goes into a circular loop around issues relating to post-Katrina New Orleans. First stop is the stunt in which Bichlbaum poses as a spokesperson for Dow Chemicals on BBC TV and says that his company will pay US$12 billion in reconstruction efforts to help the victims of the Union Carbide plant explosion in Bhopal in 1984 which killed 5,000 and which continues to poison and maim communities surrounding the plant. (Dow Chemicals took over Union Carbide in 2001.) Other memorable and hilarious if sometimes tasteless stunts include the duo’s infiltration of an oil industry conference to hand out candles purportedly made of human fat to attendees and a sales pitch to various company representatives of Survivor Ball costumes: these and other stunts are ingenious and well-planned, and are carried out with seat-of-the-pants bravado and a raw energy that counter-act the usual studied and artificial faux smoothness and slickness of much corporate advertising.
One insidious feature of the film that’s not explored or exploited much is the corporate news media’ unquestioning worship of the dominant corporate ideology and culture, expressed in the media’s often deliberate misrepresentation of the Bhopal victims’ reaction to the BBC TV prank and the New Orleans Lafitte public housing residents’ reaction to the Yes Men’s humiliation of the city mayor and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Yes Men feel compelled to visit the Bhopal victims and the Lafitte public housing residents to gauge their reactions and discover that these people, far from being upset at the duo’s hoaxes, thought the pranks were a hoot.
The Yes Men attempt to understand and explore the mind-set and ideology of global corporatism, only to discover that what passes for ideology is an infantile mantra of disconnected buzzwords and phrases that point to self-absorption, laziness and general lack of interest in historical memory, culture and anything beyond self-cocooning and satisfaction. The emphasis is on material self-gratification and anything that might interfere with that is denied; hence we have global capitalism’s fierce denial and attack on phenomena such as climate change or Peak Oil, Peak Uranium, Peak Minerals or Peak Whatever.
Experiencing despair and frustration at seeing their stunts garnering the wrong reactions – the enthusiasm of industry people for the Survivor Ball costumes suggests some folks are so lacking in insight and understanding about their own employers they fail to see they’re being sent up (perhaps the most frightening aspect of the documentary) – our heroes try one last stunt: printing and distributing for free a “special” edition of The New York Times dated six months in advance , covering “news” with a positive bent. The aim is to change people’s perceptions and attitudes so they can see the world could be a better place. When we are not being raped psychologically every day by media tales of brutality, mindless violence and governments and corporations rolling back workers’ rights with sheer machine force, we are less likely to lapse into helplessness, apathy and mental illness, and more likely to respond by being energetic and doing things for ourselves and our communities.
A scrappy production, not always very clear but fervent in its aims at taking down the rich and fatuous, “The Yes Men …” is enjoyable comedy and proof that humour is a weapon of first resort if you want to take on the world.