WHY ENTERTAINMENT AND SOCIAL ACTIVISM ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE: A Conversation with the Yes Men about their Film, The Yes Men Fix the World, Playing the Sundance Film Festival.

Combine the social disruption and confusion of culture jammers Improv Everywhere with the social awareness of Noam Chomsky, frame it as entertainment in a manner similar to Ali G, and you have a rough idea of how the Yes Men operate. Posing as a variety of authority figures, the group infiltrates shareholders meetings, press conferences, news broadcasts, websites, public speeches and a variety of other press outlets. Instead of focusing on simply embarrassing the companies or organizations which it infiltrates, the group acts as the voice of that organization––often telling the public what each organization should have said all along––taking responsibility for ethical catastrophes, economic irresponsibility, and environmental and social exploitation.

This year at the Sundance Film Festival, The Yes Men’s new film, The Yes Men Fix the World, highlights the group’s illustrious pranks over the last five years, not to be confused with the 2003 film The Yes Men, which chronicles the group’s impersonation of the World Trade Organization. Rather, The Yes Men Fix the World broadens the perspective to corporations, government officials and media in general. It is a journal of the group’s antics from a 2004 BBC appearance, posing as a Dow Chemical representative, until November 2008’s imposter printing of the New York Times.

A dozen or so mostly unidentified persons make up the core group of the Yes Men. However, the actual numbers are harder to pin down, as participation is encouraged even without association. According to one of the founding members, Andy Bichlbaum, (which may or may not be his real name), it started with a humble beginning: “It began all by accident. We did what was fun, with no real rationalization. We wanted change, but we also knew we were a couple of scoundrels.” The playful activism has now invaded mass media in an unprecedented heist of the airwaves––BBC World, the World Trade Organization, The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), The New York Times, CNBC, State University of New York (SUNY), The Annual DOW Shareholders Meeting and George W. Bush have all been victims of the Yes Men’s pranks. According to Andy, “The overall mission of the Yes Men is to make better citizens and to highlight how fun it can be to be [socially] active.”

As opposed to the expose approach of investigative journalists or documentarians (a la Michael Moore), the Yes Men really put those they focus on in the hot seat by fooling the world into thinking that the Yes Men are the ones in control, claiming responsibility for wrongs and making amends through compensation for those disenfranchised by the actions of the organization. One example chronicled in the film is a 2004 prank involving Dow Chemical. Andy Bichlbaum acts as fictitious Dow Chemical Spokesman “Jude Finisterra,” taking responsibility for the Union Carbide Bhopal Disaster of 1984 in which 10,000 people died and 100,000–200,000 people were left with permanent injuries. Finsterra’s proposal involved liquidating the plant and putting the $12 billion towards medical care, site cleanup and hazardous material research. Although Dow quickly exposed this impersonation as a hoax, the awareness of the disaster was undoubtedly raised for people outside of India, as well as a possible action the firm could take to help victims of the disaster still in pain today. Dow made no further effort after exposing the hoax to help the victims of Bhopal in any manner. As Andy Bichlbaum put it, “The Yes Men’s goal is to communicate and message, and once you know the message, put those responsible to the fire.” On a side note, Dow Chemical did not own the plant (Union Carbide) at the time of the disaster, but since purchasing the company, has chosen not to pursue any financial or legal compensation for victims, which at the time of purchase (2002) was woefully inadequate by any standards. While the social activism of the Yes Men is always rooted in important and somber issues, the actions themselves are creative, ludicrous and occasionally hilarious. I asked Andy how the Yes Men balance entertainment and activism, and his response was, “They aren’t mutually exclusive at all––the work we do is through media––it is a disproportionate effect on media.”

Take, for example, another prank documented in the film––“the Halliburton Survivaball.” Presented at a Catastrophic Loss Conference (undoubtedly a self-created venue for the prank), this ridiculous contraption is designed to protect corporate managers from the hazards of global warming. A detailed PowerPoint presentation highlights the abilities of the suit to harness wind power, hydroelectric power, power from living animals and combine with other Survivaballs to form a Megaball. The presentation left the business professionals attending the conference baffled, but the documentation of the event is at the core of the Yes Men’s ability to entertain the rest of us.

“Our work is the documentation––we are not going to change minds at the conference––we have to document what we do and show it to the world. It wouldn’t really make sense otherwise,” Andy remarks. Those who can appreciate the irony of a company entrenched in environmental exploitation planning for corporate survival through environmental disaster would probably not be those in attendance at the meeting, but for the rest of us, it provides witty commentary paired with sketch comedy.

Amidst all of the corporate sponsors of Sundance, the film may seem hypocritically out of place. However, the beauty of the Yes Men is its availability to a wide audience. While other activist films and movements are limited to underground screenings in independent concert venues, garages and small theaters, The Yes Men Fix the World at Sundance highlights the group’s ability to coexist amongst big business, red tape, and bureaucracy. In fact, this ability is what gives Yes Men such powerful material— the group is not preaching to the choir; they are manically preaching from the enemy’s podium to its subjects and critics. The setting of the film within Sundance is yet another punk-rocker in a business suit, utilizing the most readily acceptable medium to deliver the same underlying message of change and ethical responsibility. Andy’s synopsis of the film is brief yet powerful: “This film is about how we can change the world––where we have control and [where] we don’t. In the end, we show that we don’t have control. The only way to regain control is to take over the government. Something we discovered through pain and fury: we have to take over our government.”

I pressed Andy to explain his seeming pessimism while the Yes Men’s New York Times edition was so optimistic. This elaborate scheme took over nine months to organize and involved a slew of cohorts, supporters, writers, distributors and Yes Men. For the uninformed, the Yes Men were largely behind the false edition of the New York Times distributed on November 12, 2008. The paper, dated July 4, 2009, was distributed in New York and Los Angeles (1.2 million hard copies) with the headline, “Iraq War Ends—Troops to Return Immediately,” and such other stories as, “National Health Insurance Act Passes,” “USA Patriot Act Repealed,” “Court Indicts Bush on High Treason Charge” and “Nation Sets its Sights on Building a Sane Economy.” With these optimistic headlines, I didn’t expect such a powerful conclusion as “we don’t have control” and “we have to take over our government.” Andy’s response was, “Optimistic? Because it is an optimistic moment––the time has come to hold them to the fire!”

The optimism is apparent in the youthful vigor and unstoppable enthusiasm expressed throughout the group’s multitude of appearances throughout various media outlets. Despite the realistically dim outcome of many of the actions, the awareness raised by each stunt begins a discourse that builds into a roar for change. While Andy acknowledges the frequent absence of direct response from their activism, the long-term benefits are apparent. Whether or not one agrees 100% with each and every Yes Men stunt, it is hard to not see the ethical violations that businesses and government hope so desperately for us to ignore. The Yes Men’s appearance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival will undoubtedly expose a new group of film watchers to a newfound criticism of globalization, commercial exploitation and legal ethics violations. Combined with the current economic crisis, the timing could not be more appropriate.

Supported by Evil Twin Booking, the brainchild of everywhere activists Scott Beibin and Liz Cole, the Yes Men’s appearance at Sundance will further engrain their presence as a part of the mass media they themselves manipulate. As to whether the Yes Men are afraid of selling out or being co-opted as part of traditional media, the response itself is satire: “What, you have a paradise to sell us? So what if we get co-opted? We’ve done a lot of co-opting ourselves.”