Know the Yes Men
It was inevitable that the Yes Men would pull a prank at the premiere for their new film, The Yes Men Fix the World, at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. The group's founders, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, wore inflatable costumes and blocked the red carpet of the BMW's Cinema for Peace gala. They said they would not leave 'until BMW stops making cars'.
Their biggest stunt to date came in November 2004, when Bichlbaum made it onto the BBC posing as a representative of Dow Chemicals. Going under the pseudonym Jude Finisterra, he announced that Dow would take full responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster and commit more than US$12 billion in compensation and clean-up funds.
The story stormed through the news cycle, Dow's stock plunged, and the goal of the caper was achieved - the media heavily covered the legacy of one of the worst industrial disasters of all time.
The Yes Men Fix the World, the group's second feature film, is being rolled out gradually, but they see the films largely as by-products of their activism. 'The main thing we do,' Bonanno says at the Taipei Film Festival, 'is we're part of a global conspiracy to make things better'.
Before the film came out, the Yes Men were regularly updating their antics on their website, theyesmen.org, where posts continue to appear (the pair's videos are easier to find on YouTube).
Since 2000, they have posed as spokesmen for the WTO, Dow, Exxon, McDonald's and Halliburton. They have yet to be sued. 'We want them to sue us. That would be ideal,' says Bonanno. 'But the PR consequences of a protracted lawsuit would probably be worse for a big corporation than whatever they could get by suing someone like me or Andy.'
Bonanno and Bichlbaum, both of whom are teachers, got their start by creating fake websites that purported to represent everyone from George W. Bush to the WTO.
In 2000, one of their fake websites, a veiled spoof on the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade called GATT.org, received an invitation to attend a conference on trade law in Salzburg, Austria. Bichlbaum appeared as the keynote speaker and, ostensibly representing the WTO, proposed that a perfect union of democracy and free markets would mean 'allowing the sale of votes directly to the highest bidder'. To further this end, the WTO would set up a website called VoteAuction.com, he said.
'We had no idea what would happen,' said Bonanno. 'We took a video camera along as a witness in case we got arrested. But nothing happened. No one called us out as fakes. So we realised we might be onto something.'
Returning home, the pair called up some friends, including the award-winning documentary filmmaker Chris Smith. Their first film, The Yes Men, was finished by 2003.
Comparing the movies to the YouTube clips, Bonanno says, 'the films, to me, are more substantial. They are a stronger statement, and they're more enduring. The internet stuff is good because it creates a big sensation, but it really doesn't last very long.'
The pair will continue to use both media to get the word out.
'Our ultimate goal is to get people directly involved in the causes themselves,' he says. 'Because if that doesn't happen, we're basically all screwed.'