2004 was the year when independent cinema waged war on corporations. There was, once again, the ubiquitous Michael Moore with his anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 (I’m equating Bush and corporations here), the popular Super Size Me, which took the debate to the level of masochistic performance art and The Corporation, which reveals that corporations, which are technically defined as legal persons, have the profile of a psychopath.
2005 looks set to repeat the trend as The Yes Men arrives on our screens. The Yes Men in question are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, a duo of American pranksters who attend meetings around the world pretending to be representatives from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to deliver speeches using corporate lingo while subverting the message. They call the process ‘identity correction’, and get their invitations via their WTO parody website. Amazingly, the farce goes completely over their audiences’ heads.
"It’s a way to push people to show their true colours," says Mike. "And then we hold up the mirror at them." Seeing some of their stints in venues such as a textile conference in Helsinki, with Andy dressed in an outrageous phallic golden costume, it’s really shocking to realise that the business people in the audience find everything absolutely normal and agree with the most far-fetched ideas they come up with. "We see how far we can go, but I don’t think we have reached the limits yet," says Andy. "It shows how brutal and stupid the theory that greed is good is," says Andy.
Directed by the award-winning team behind American Movie (Chris Smith, Dan Ollman and Sarah Price), The Yes Men is no sample of art-house film-making. It is a low-key piece that resembles a college video feature. But it doesn’t matter: it enthralls mainly on the merits of the subject matter and the pluckiness that Mike and Andy show when faced with the corporate zombies. They are very, very good at that and both are skilled articulators of ideas.
Do they worry the exposure they get with the film will take from them the necessary anonymity to carry out their performances? "I don’t think so," says Andy. "Perhaps for a while, but not really." Mike thinks that it doesn’t matter because they are not the only ones. "When our faces expire, other people will be doing that. Anyone can be a Yes man or a Yes woman."
Unsurprisingly, they are not very happy with the current state of their nation. "We’re really, really sad about Bush’s victory. We all have to take a deep breath. The negative environmental impact of his policies will be huge," says Mike. Andy says that "the Iraq war was the first time that the country pre-emptively attacked another country. They are looking at Syria and Iran now. America’s credibility will never come back. The notion of America as a benevolent power is over. Perhaps if there is another genocide in the 21st century…"
What do they think of the thesis that Bush won on moral issues? Andy, who is gay, is not so sure about that, at least when it comes to gay marriage. "I think voting against gays was a small part of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was another PR spin. When the whole gay marriage issue came out, I thought it was the wrong issue to worry about. There were much more important issues at stake."
But it’s not only in America that things are looking grim. The Yes Men lament how Europe is letting go of the welfare state and embracing privatisation. "The EU can be frightening because it is founded on trade, not social issues. It’s amazing how privatization is happening systematically," says Andy.
So what can we do in our desperation to cope in a world spiraling out of control? "We can educate ourselves and our neighbours. What we see in the US is that people in the religious right always organise themselves in groups, so perhaps we have to become some kind of evangelists as well," Mike says.
In the week Antonio Pasolini interviewed the Yes Men in early December last year, they had just managed another feat, with Andy posing as a DowEthics.com representative to discuss the company’s position on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy on its 20th anniversary. Click on the following link to watch the video:
And here is how angry Dow Ethics became in response: