A personal touch is the greatest asset to this entertaining documentary about environmental activists The Yes Men.
The Yes Men Are Revolting
It’s amazing that, after more than 15 years, The Yes Men are still going strong. Made up of two men going by the names of Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum—two poorly maintained aliases—The Yes Men frequently pose as representatives of corporations and/or institutions they take issue with, pulling off schemes helping expose information that would otherwise get swept under the rug. One of their most memorable stunts had Bichlbaum posing as a Dow Chemical spokesman on BBC, announcing that Dow would spend billions cleaning up the Bhopal disaster and compensating the hundreds of thousands who were harmed from the tragedy. None of it was true, but the prank simultaneously became a PR fiasco for Dow and increased awareness of their heinous actions in Bhopal.
Pranks like the Dow incident, among many others over the years, also act as perfect encapsulations of why The Yes Men are beloved activists. Their methods might be insensitive (the unfortunate part of the Bhopal prank is that the surviving victims of the disaster believed it too), but the results can be terrific. Most of their pranks amount to tricking people into thinking corporations will perform moral and humane actions, thereby forcing the people they pose as to come out and deny they’re doing the right thing. It’s funny, it makes great news, and it helps serve as a reminder of the lack of humanity in business.
Back in 2003, The Yes Men chronicled some of their missions, and it was followed by The Yes Men Fix the World in 2009. Now they’ve teamed up with director Laura Nix to make a third documentary about their work, with a heavy focus on climate change. The documentary opens with Bonanno and Bichlbaum trying to create a flotilla of Survivaballs (a giant, inflatable suit they claim will protect people from global warming) that will crash UN talks on climate change across the East River. The Coast Guard put a stop to it, but the image of dozens of people in big, inflatable ball outfits became easy fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.
After the opening, the documentary goes down a path similar to The Yes Men’s preceding films, chronicling several of their more recent culture jamming efforts. The film’s highlight comes early on, with Bichlbaum posing as a worker for the US Chamber of Commerce (aka one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the States). In a press conference, Bichlbaum announces that the Chamber has reversed its policy on climate change entirely, supporting a carbon tax along with progressive legislation. It doesn’t take long for the Chamber to find out what’s going on, and in a painfully funny scene a representative of the lobbying group tries to interrupt the press conference while it’s still happening. The situation makes the news, and for The Yes Men their prank is a resounding success—the Chamber announced a revised, more progressive policy on climate change several weeks later.
It’s one of the few successes for The Yes Men in the film, and the way Nix, Bonanno and Bichlbaum—all credited as co-directors—deviate from the formula established in previous Yes Men documentaries elevates the material significantly. This time, both Bonanno and Bichlbaum open up about their own personal lives, and the struggles they’ve had with supporting themselves. Both men talk about the difficulty they’ve had with maintaining relationships due to their commitment to activism, and for a brief time there’s a possibility that The Yes Men might give up. Bonanno, who has a wife and two children, moves to Scotland, leaving Bichlbaum in New York City. Bonanno’s struggle with the temptation of quitting activism and settling down with his family gives the film a specificity and human element that, oddly enough, helps make the macro issues more impacting.
Both men also open up about their pasts as well, revealing that their parents were Holocaust survivors. The focus on Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s personal lives might be seen as a distraction from the very real and pressing crises they try to solve, but the approach strikes a nice balance between the two. By delving into their personal lives, it shows their own cost of what they’re doing, making it easier to respect and support their cause. Bonanno and Bichlbaum have risked and lost plenty for doing what they do, and the way they, along with Nix, use that information to frame their footage gives a lot more power and relatability to what’s on screen.
Granted, Nix and The Yes Men’s direction doesn’t always work. There’s a subplot where Bonanno hides his wife’s third pregnancy from Bichlbaum, and the whole thing comes across as manufactured drama (the scene where they drunkenly make amends feels more contrived than natural). The same goes for the final act, where the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street suddenly inspire The Yes Men to go back into action, a conclusion that’s a little too neat to believe it wasn’t partly created in the editing room. But even with some overt directorial choices, The Yes Men Are Revolting still works. Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s opening up to the camera also opens up the film itself, and by doing so it makes it easy to invest in them. It’s strange to describe a film about the potential end of mankind as light or breezy, but The Yes Men Are Revolting is exactly that, and in many ways is much better for it.
The Yes Men Are Revolting opens at the IFC Center in NYC this Friday. It is currently available on Video on Demand.