The third film about the prankster activists who call themselves The Yes Men, is being released this weekend across the country. The title for the film, The Yes Men Are Revolting is an obvious pun meaning not that they are disgusting, but rather fighting for social change.
Their issues are many, including climate change, homophobia, racism and injustice everywhere, and they use the powerful tool of humor, satire, pranks and hoaxes to bring new people to the struggle. Their first two films focused more on the actual ingenious pranks that embarrassed corporations and government agencies into changing some of their anti-people policies.
Releasing fake public statements in the name of the United Nations, Chamber of Commerce, or WTO, is not only daring but oftentimes brilliant political theater. Their newest release is much more personal and realistic about the actual ups and downs of the activist world, but still retains some incredibly funny segments.
They pull off miraculous results, creating a room full of defense contractors holding hands in a circle, dancing and singing to an Indian drummer; and getting the Chamber of Commerce to change their policies and drop a lawsuit against them, to name just a couple.
I had a chance to chat with the director Laura Nix, who besides directing, went to college in Oregon with Mike and was around when they first met. Mike is from Albany and Andy is from Tucson.
I asked her what role comedy plays in the struggle. “Humor is the Trojan horse. It’s a way to get in to a place you might not ordinarily be allowed. This way you get people watching a film on climate change who might NEVER watch a film on climate change.”
Besides drawing in new converts, “the actions themselves give people a chance to look at the issues in a different way because of the humor. People are all of a sudden pulled into a pretty complex political debate, even people who are normally allergic to politics.
“Humor is kind of an equalizer and our way to reach a mainstream audience. And also to remind people already politically engaged that we do this for love and for fun. We talk about ‘the struggle’ but there’s an incredible amount of energy you can get from doing this kind of political work. And doing something that’s fun and being around a lot of people who believe in that, can be incredibly energizing.”
The director explained why they chose to make another feature documentary rather than a TV series. “The reason we chose the feature film medium, is that cinema is one of the last places that forces you to sit and think about nothing else for an hour and a half. It allows for a different kind of emergence and feeling. We wanted this film to have an emotional comment as well, not just the jokes. We want viewers to able to feel more what it’s like to be an activist and go on this journey with the Yes Men and experience what its like for them to succeed as well as fail. Failure was actually a big inspiration for making this film. The truth is that being an activist you often feel like you’re failing. After that big rally or whatever, you didn’t really end climate change or poverty or racism and you wonder all the time if this is worth it. We all wonder about that, but over time, things do add up and these social movements are capable of making changes. We have to have patience and to think about it in the long view. We are hoping you see that side of them and it gives the audience another way to identify with them.”
Mike Bonanno, who gives new meaning to the term ‘straight man’ in a comedy team, partnered with Andy Bichlbaum back in 1996. He claims, when he first opened the door to greet Andy, “it was like looking into a funhouse mirror.” Andy felt they were each other’s half when they first met and they have been inseparable since – until Mike went off and got married, moved to Europe and had three children.
It put a bit of a strain on their relationship, and their comedic activist teamwork. The film addresses many of the new stresses facing the funny guys. Andy comes out gay in the movie, and in one scene he bravely reveals his sexuality to a group of Ugandan climate activists, a country that recently tried to pass a bill in Parliament to kill homosexuals.
I asked Mike why they decided to get more personal in their movies. “We’re a bit older now, at a time where we can have a better perspective and look back at what happened. And now we have more pressures, dealing with capitalism, supporting a family, it’s a good moment to reflect, a way to speak to people more engagingly.”
I asked if their growing public image makes it more difficult to pull pranks. Mike explained, “Even in the case of being exposed, it sort of works well for the Yes Men. The scene with the Chamber of Commerce worked well because we were exposed.” They eventually forced the Chamber to drop their lawsuit, and assumed the Chamber didn’t want to have to reveal their expense account. As for growing exposure, “for now it’s not become a big deal. And besides, there are other people in our team who are sometimes going up and doing the work in front of the camera. We have sort of a training crew.”
Andy’s homosexuality is one of the themes in this film, first fearing it might possibly jeopardize the comedy teams work. Mike stated, “I assumed that ‘coming out’ was something you did once in your life, then you’re ‘out’ and people know you’re gay. But it’s actually something you have to do over and over again in different contexts.” Referring to Andy’s Uganda revelation, he emphasized, “It was a political statement, a form of activism, because it’s a place where homosexuality is made invisible because it’s such a repressive system. . . So coming out there was a kind of solidarity with the people who are actually ‘out’ there risking their lives defending gay rights.”
Most of their pranks expose corporate wrongdoing and the failures of capitalism. I asked Mike how he thought we would move on to a better system, he replied, “Hopefully, the easy way. Capitalism will fall apart. Because there’s an end game. You have to take those principles that drive capitalism, and put a lid on them.”
He’s referring to the endless drive for increased profit. “It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen, and for now we have to put pressure on governments to steer the ship in a different direction. And study what that takes. If it’s another political system, fine. Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is correct on this and we are great fans of her writings.”
Mike continues, “We’re going to have to force corporations to change. Take back the government from the corporations that corrupted them, corrupted politicians, get money out of politics, and use democracy for what it’s intended – looking at the way to best serve people and protect our future. That’s what we should be in it for. Not to get rich quick.”
And they’re not just in this for the movies. To put power behind the push they have established an online gathering spot for activists to share projects and learn about each other. Go to Actionswitchboard.net
The new Incubator Program will start in July to train and help activists reach out to others and put their projects online. Director Laura Nix highlights, “We’re hoping that all the energy that goes into this will be creating actions that will lead up to the next climate meeting in Paris this December.”
The film opens Friday, June 12 in New York and then in LA and other selected cities. It’s available now on iTunes and other digital platforms and On Demand, and on all cable companies. You can go to the Yes Men Are Revolting website to check screenings in your area. (But watch out! It looks like those pranksters are spraying your computer screen!) And while you’re at it, check out their first two films that will also make you feel that being an activist is not only necessary – but great fun!