Over the last twenty years, culture-jamming hoaxsters “Mike Bonanno” and “Andy Bichlbaum” (their pseudonyms) aka The Yes Men — a duo of activist pranksters and revolutionaries — have hijacked the mainstream media to bring attention to various cases of eco-social importance. Their list of accolades is long and storied. Formed in the early 1990s, and targeting the insidiousness of corporate malfeasance, the Yes Man have punk’d and hoodwinked Haliburton, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, McDonalds, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Shell Oli, HUD, and many, many other corporations and organizations.
Generally their agitprop modus operandi is impersonating entities from these corporations and calling their own press conferences, or scamming themselves onto TV and proclaiming a shocking about face in corporate agenda. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009, they falsified a statement by Environment Canada promising to cut carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 (so complex are their schemes, they also released a fake response from the Ugandan delegation, praising the statement to back it up).
Of course, the tricksters and their manipulation are always found out. But for the Yes Men, these are still little victories. Their goal isn’t simply sloganeering, it’s sly awareness and a clever, reverse engineering of messages that results in biting satire.
The Yes Men have been here before. There’s the titular 2003 film chronicling their shenanigans and 2009’s “The Yes Men Fix the World” which found them upping the ante of their tactical media swindles. But Laura Nix’s documentary, co-directed by the Yes Men themselves (real names Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos), might have been better titled “The Yes Men Are Imploding & Losing Faith.” Because “The Yes Men Are Revolting” attempts to weave in an intimate and wide-ranging narrative, focusing on the fracturing relationship of the duo and the larger challenges activists of every stripe face. And it’s a neat, understandable trick, personalizing and humanizing the men through their own struggles, both independent and otherwise. But it doesn’t always work, and ‘Revolting’ isn’t anywhere as mischievous and devilish as the Yes Men pranks.
Granted, it’s not meant to be, as “The Yes Men Are Revolting” is an examination of commitment and the emotional struggle of activism: is it making a difference, and if not, why are we doing it? Are they still relevant, do they matter, and can they bring about actual change? These are the questions that the film raises in what turns out to be a kind of rousing and well-meaning ode to activism, but the ride is uneven.
‘Revolting’ opens up with The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — not an actual agency of the government, and in reality a pro-corporate lobbying group — suing the duo for their fraud of the organization reversing their position on climate control. Obviously, in this line of work, the Yes Men have had countless lawsuits threatened against them, but the Chamber of Commerce actually wants to go to court and a lobbying group with millions of dollars at their disposal could potentially squash the Yes Men like a bug.
The lawsuit is the first of several fissures captured in the film that shows them losing faith and becoming weary about their hoaxes now as they are in their 40s with families and responsibilities. After a few failed or disappointing pranks, Igor eventually moves his family abroad while Jacques, who has lost several boyfriends to his commitment to the Yes Men, remains in New York City. This separation estranges them not just physically, but spiritually. While they’re on the same page ideologically, Igor needs a kind of breather with his family and Jacques finds other comrades to fight the powers that be with. When they reconvene months later for a new project in Amsterdam, it’s a disorganized mess and ultimately a failure (and it is a bit shocking to see how tenuously most of their projects are seemingly held together).
Eventually, after much introspection and soul-searching, the duo are re-galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a crusade driven by frustration, anger and a desire for change. In Occupy they find much-needed fuel for their pranksterist form of activism. And yet, the narrative of the doc still somehow feels slight. It doesn’t help that the little animated segments that pepper the documentary in order to explain some of our environmental problems — climate change, for one — are a little glib, trivializing and cloying. The style of these bits is meant to represent the Yes Men’s naughty touch, but it just tends to undermine the message in this context. And for the Yes Men, things fall into place too conveniently at the end of the film. Existential struggles are overcome quickly, epiphanies about how to move forward arrive just in time, and that Chamber of Commerce lawsuit that breeds serious unease at the beginning? A quick coda nearing the credits casually just says, “oh that thing, yeah, they dropped the lawsuit.” This quick, concluding wrap-up of solutions to the duo’s problems feels contrived and ultimately disappointing after what is often a poignant look at the spiritual struggle of being an activist.
Now, unless you’re one of those that believe the narrow narrative agenda pushed by Fox News (and sadly, more and more often CNN) is communicating non-reductive, non-alarmist ideas, it’s rather unquestionable that the Yes Men are putting themselves on the front lines and doing the lord’s work. They’ve sacrificed real careers, family, relationships and more to raise awareness for issues they believe it. And so Laura Nix’s doc personal examination of the duo is a smart approach. But the narrative pacing and balance of the doc is always a little clunky, and the intimate analysis tends to cancel out the far-reaching projects and messages the duo are trying to bring to light. Don’t get it too twisted, “The Yes Men Are Revolting” is an entertaining and interesting examination of the anxieties that make us question who we are and if we’re making a difference. But on the whole, this minor film is not nearly as imperative as the vital activism these guys have dedicated their lives to. Still, at the very least I would urge you to see it, if only to familiarize yourself with their noble efforts. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 DOC NYC Film Festival.