Yes Men Punk the WTO; Smith, Bichlbaum, and Bonnano on “The Yes Men”
by Jacque Lynn Schiller
In the spirit of “Jackass” (or maybe “Punk’d”) on MTV, Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith‘s new documentary “The Yes Men” follows a group of culture jammers, one person affectionately referred to them as “cultural terrorists,” who typically impersonate such established organizations as the WTO to present their own take on those organizations views.
Maintaining an earnest countenance, and always with clever planning, the group hoodwinks unsuspecting conference-goers and even students in their quest to undermine the work of groups like the World Trade Organization. In one action, the Yes Men unveil the WTO and McDonalds’ answer to world hunger, a burger re-purposed from human waste, while in another a supposed WTO representative announces that the group is disbanding.
On the eve of the Republican National Convention in New York City, Jacque Schiller sat down with filmmaker Chris Smith and The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, to talk Reburgers and Bush buses, as well as the new movie. It expands to a number of new cities tomorrow, October 1.
indieWIRE: How did you guys hook up?
Chris Smith: They hired us through an online dating service.
Yes Men: It was a preemptive Friendster experience. Basically I met Sarah (Price) and Chris in Milwaukee when I was visiting a friend years ago. Then we kept in touch with each other and when me and Andy in 2000 found ourselves living in a movie we called them up and said, “Can you film this?” Because it was outrageous.
iW: Did you imagine it becoming a full-blown doc or did you think you’d get busted before completion?
YM: Well the first thing we did, the Salzburg video (The Horribly Stupid Stunt which has Resulted in his Untimely Death), we thought we’d get busted immediately. We expected it to blow up and we’d have a camera there to document whatever crazy thing happened. As a result of that one, it was such a pain to edit, it became clear that it was going to be a project far beyond our powers.
CS: They transferred the pain over to us.
iW: Chris, how did you get clearance to bring in your cameras?
CS: We just called or emailed ahead that we were bringing a crew to film whatever the event was with the WTO. Technically it all made sense and was “honest.”
iW: Did you tell the university beforehand what you were up to or did they figure it out after the fact? That was the only audience that seemed disturbed by the presentation.
YM: The teacher told them the next day but most of them got it.
iW: But at the conferences, everyone seemed to buy into your speech. No one blinked an eye at your gold suit and pro-slavery speech.
YM: No. Well eventually they clued in after the local news covered it.
iW: But not during the actual conference event?
YM: There was some hint of suspicion but never full blown. Just like one individual in Salzburg.
iW: That’s sad. Did you intentionally choose not to show the people who had figured it out?
YM: They didn’t do anything dramatic enough.
CS: I would have shown it but I didn’t have any footage.
iW: As the Yes Men did you ever say, “No” to what footage they (the filmmakers) could use?
YM: No. Free reign.
CS: They’re not into censorship.
iW: Do you actually write all the speeches?
YM: Yes. Whatever isn’t plagiarized.
iW: The research would be full-time work. Are there others who help brainstorm material?
YM: We have a huge skeptic tank that brings ideas. There’s a whole web of people who discuss things, but mainly it’s just Andy or I throwing things back and forth and writing the lectures. But the ideas are based on WTO policy and these theorists who come up with absurd ideas of how the world should be run.
iW: The Reburger — it’s such an exaggerated proposal.
YM: The students were horrified right away. Some of them came up afterwards. But the attitude of “Let them eat shit, the poor eat shit,” that’s around now. That is essentially what all these unfair trade agreements do to third world populations.
iW: What’s your take on the whole preaching to the choir? Did you ever consider pranking the trailer so that a different kind of audience (read: right wing) would accidentally go and see it?
YM: We did, in a way, think of that. A Swiss distributor actually wanted to invite members of the WTO to a screening claiming it was about the WTO. It would be amazing if they thought it was the new Hollywood blockbuster.
iW: Is there a Part Two or was that the end?
CS: When the invitations stopped coming that was the end of the documentary. But they’re still up to things, just not necessarily WTO related.
iW: Do you believe film can be an activist’s tool?
CS: Sure. We’ve seen it time and time again with the films that are out now. It definitely is a tool to get information out to people. This film isn’t just about the WTO but also about these guys and the sort of adventure they go on. Hopefully it can educate people along the way.
iW: What are you guys planning now?
CS: Dan and Sarah were just filming them with the Bush bus which sheds light on Bush’s policy.
YM: We’re going to basically do the same kind of thing we did with the WTO, talking to people about Bush’s campaign. Not really in an exaggerated way. We’re going to speak honestly from their campaign — elaborate just what his plan is. For example they claim to have these environmental initiatives but if you study what they really say, it undermines the point. Two years ago they released a report acknowledging that global warning was a problem but by saying it’s more Europe’s problem, because an ice age would affect them and leave America basically intact. The Bush administration has done nothing about global warming so that passes as their statement. We ask people to sign petitions supporting global warming.
iW: Because a vote for Bush is essentially the same thing. How many people do you think “get it” after reading through your brochures and pamphlets?
YM: Most people realize it pretty quick. Often we meet people for a second and they walk off with a brochure and you can see them kind of reading and beginning to wonder. They do double takes and sometimes they come back and ask, “Do I really have to give up my right to Search and Seizure without a warrant?” And we say, “Yes. You’ve got to do that, you know the Patriot Act. You don’t have to sign it if you don’t want to, but to be a true patriot…” It’s exactly what Bush is asking us to do.
iW: So Bush is next to be “identity corrected”?
YM: We’re working on it. There’s nothing more important.
[“The Yes Men” opens in Philadelphia, Boston, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and a number of other cities tomorrow, October 1st.]