Throughout the years, protest in this country has taken on a number of forms. Union workers have rallied outside factories with picket signs and foghorns. PETA activists have dumped gallons of paint on designers fashioned in fox furs and alligator shoes.
For moviemakers Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, protest meant digging their claws deep into the root of the issues they care about—in essence becoming part of the problem in order to fix it. In The Yes Men Fix The World, their second documentary and first directorial effort, Bonanno and Bichlbaum pose as representatives from a number of companies and agencies that take part in the most nauseating, bottom-line-driven practices imaginable. Their voices were heard as they pulled off these spectacularly elaborate hoaxes, at times reaching audiences of 300 million people.
With each successfully executed prank, their influence has grown in ways they’ve never imagined. Now, with The Yes Men Fix The World, on DVD today, that influence is reaching a new audience; an audience perhaps entirely unaware of the atrocities happening here in America and throughout the world.
Bonanno and Bichlbaum discuss their latest documentary in this exclusive interview with MM, detailing the daring endeavors they’ve embarked upon in the name of what’s right.
Michael Walsh (MM): What led to you guys combining the concepts of a traditional documentary with fictional scenes to tell the story in The Yes Men Fix The World?
Mike Bonanno (MB): Well, we had already done a straightforward doc; the last doc we did was an observational documentary. I think for this one, we wanted to be a little weirder and a little bit more fun. We decided to just run with it, you know? We were making it a little bit more of an argument as opposed to a more observational documentary, so we thought it would be more fun to tell the story with stranger scenes in-between.
MM: Andy, what was your goal with The Yes Men Fix The World? Did you want to reach people who are in a position to make change—like lawmakers or other government officials—or are you more interested in reaching the general public? Perhaps a younger audience that can then vote in the direction that will change policy?
Andy Bichlbaum (AB): Well, you just said it really well: Both of those. Obviously our primary goal is to reach younger people and the general public; people who will maybe not only vote, but who will take to the streets and stomp their way to actual power. The main thing with our film, the thing we tried to bring home in the end, is that we really just have to make a change. You have to take power in the people. But, yeah, if lawmakers see it, that’s fantastic. We have tried to set up a congressional hill screening, which we’re still looking into.
MM: When making a documentary, it’s obviously difficult to predict how everything is going to unfold since there’s no script. Mike, in instances like when you posed as Halliburton executives and were advertising the survival bubble, did you find it difficult to steer the story in the direction you intended when virtually no one opposed your ideas or your product? Some people were even intrigued by it. Was that difficult?
MB: Yeah, I think it was pretty hard to predict which way the story would go from scene to scene. Sometimes, the next thing that we would do was, we would think of what we’d done last time and try to figure out how it connected. The thing is, after a while we did figure out that [corporate] audiences rarely would react to anything from someone in power—react in a negative way. So that became a bit predictable, and so it becomes even more fun when we’re doing something more extreme like with the survival ball, and we kind of knew that nobody was going to say anything to rock the boat. So we thought making it sillier and even more outrageous would work, and it did.
MM: It seemed like there was no limit as to what you could do and still not get an angry reaction from people.
MM: And you guys sort of proved that to a point.
AB: Yeah, that’s definitely true. It’s just not in our nature to question what’s in front of us. And it shouldn’t necessarily be, either. It’s kind of in the human capacity to enjoy a book or play, managing to just forget it’s all fake. The trouble is that we should believe what we’re presented with. If you read something in the paper, you should be able to trust it. If you go to a conference, you should believe the person who’s there, but if the person starts saying really horrific things, or if you start reading the paper and it’s full of contradictions and it’s not possible, then it’s really time to break out of that and say “Wait a second, I believe [what they’re saying], but it’s wrong.” And that’s what’s shocking—that people believed that we were from Halliburton, but when Halliburton starts saying something reprehensible, they should say “Wait, I don’t like Halliburton anymore.”
MM: Andy, were there any reactions that surprised you more than others? Because at one point you’re facing a journalist who’s questioning you very hard, and at other times people were just accepting your ideas—like with the disaster bubble, for example.
AB: Well, at this point it’s always more surprising when people do come after us. We’ve been doing this for a number of years, and it’s pretty rare when people take issue. In New Orleans, when that journalist came after us like a rabid bull, it was exciting and a lot of fun. He was just doing his job.
MM: You mention in the film that hotels like the Ritz-Carlton were threatening you with legal action if you ever decided to use their names in the film. You did so anyway. Did they or any other company actually follow up on those threats?
MB: No, they haven’t. You know, maybe it’s because we’ve actually embraced the idea. If they do decide to take legal action, we’ve got nothing to lose and they have a lot to lose. I mean, I don’t have any particular beef with the Ritz-Carlton, but certainly with the companies we’ve targeted, you know, we’ve had a lot to say about them. If we did look into the Ritz-Carlton (laughs), I’m sure that they or their parent company—I think there’s something they know that they probably don’t want out for the public.
MM: How difficult was it for you to create these aliases and these characters to represent big business, and then simultaneously have to answer questions on the spot without having actually been there and knowing their internal operations? How difficult was it for you to create these characters?
AB: It was really easy. (laughs) It wasn’t done in any painstaking way. We didn’t actually read up on oil surfaces, or anything to represent Halliburton. We’ve become experts in a way each time, but only experts in the big picture. Like when we represented Halliburton, it was just enough to know how they’re destroying Iraq in the name of oil. So basically, they’re in the service of stuff that’s destroying the world, and they must have a plan for what happens when the world is destroyed. The details weren’t so important. Just like the first thing we did with the World Trade Organization.
We went to a conference in Austria as the WTO, and we didn’t have to know the ins and outs of trade law, we just had to understand the big picture, which is that the WTO exists to enable big corporations to do what they do without interference from government; basically, to do things in the most efficient way without democracy getting in the way. So we went and we just proposed privatizing the whole system of voting and allowing corporations to buy votes directly from citizens instead of going through the whole campaign/finance/PR machine. So we became experts, but really just overall in the big picture. You can usually break these big issues down to a very simple principle. Like with the WTO, the principle was “everything will work out if you just let corporations do what you want.” You can go with that and just take it the rest of the way.
MM: You guys proved in the doc that the people in the areas ruined by disaster or corporate negligence weren’t offended, but rather appreciated the efforts you raised. Despite this, was there ever a point where the “false hope” argument crept into your mind, and did you ever consider not moving forward with a prank because of that?
MB: Yeah, each time that we were going to do one of the announcements that something good was going to happen, we thought twice about it and each time we went ahead with the idea after consulting with people who had been working on the issue for a long time. Strangely, we actually bought the argument that we’d given people false hope the first time around. After we announced that Dow Chemical was going to clean up the mess in Bhopal, when it was reported that the victims were further victimized and given false hope, we really felt bad until we actually found out from the victims themselves that they were happy about it. And I think since, we’ve really come to realize that the victims are the people who have the easiest time identifying who is really victimizing them, you know? I mean they looked at us like we were crazy when we talked about false hope. “Are you insane, we’ve been struggling for 20 years to keep this issue in the limelight. Of course we recognize it’s not your fault!”
MM: Every time you guys are able to pull off one of these pranks, whether it’s the government or a big corporation, they’ve consistently come back with mass public statements saying that your pranks are cruel jokes, when in reality they were meant to bring relevance to issues that a lot of people don’t know about. Did you find it difficult afterwards? Because now you’re stuck defending yourself when you’ve been doing the right thing and people may not get the right perception of you until they see the film.
AB: You know, until people see the film, there’s always that question in the audience: “How could you hurt the people in Bhopal?” But you know, it doesn’t really matter. We didn’t do these things to make friends or make ourselves look good. We did them to raise awareness to the issues. So with the Bhopal thing, we got about 600 articles in the U.S. press that wouldn’t have been written. And if people think that we were cruel when we did that, then so be it. That’s okay. It’s just a battle. Maybe we don’t get the right message across. It doesn’t really matter, as long as we’re doing what we need to do be doing, which is not trying to make ourselves look good but getting the issues out there one way or another. People finding out that there are these issues is really the point and hopefully there will be enough outrage as a result and we can build on the actual outrage that exists and change can happen.
MM: Lastly, of all the pranks you’ve pulled, which do you think had the strongest influence on people and their decision-making, whether they be lawmakers or the general public?
MB: Well I think that in general, the last thing that we did with The New York Times got a lot of people very excited, you know? It was sort of emotionally fulfilling for quite a few people, and you can see that in their faces during the scene in the film. We were overwhelmed with positive e-mail after that one. I mean, I think some of the other ones, like the announcement that we made at Dow Chemical, were more effective in terms of raising the profile of an existing issue, you know, and reminding people that the Bhopal disaster had never been cleaned up. So I think there are different ways in which different stunts had worked, but overall I would say that the newspaper one had the most profound effect on people. As for changing laws, it’s awfully hard to tell. That process is always so slow. What we do doesn’t really result in the change–we contribute to the movement that creates the change.
Visit TheYesMen.org for more information.