Spoiler alert: The Yes Men do actually fix the world– but only on paper. For years this two-man team has been pranking conferences, newscasts, and exhibitions by posing as representatives of the world’s biggest environmental transgressors. While speaking as DOW Chemical, they publicly apologized for the Bhopal disaster. While pretending to be from Halliburton, they demonstrated the Survivaball, a human disaster survival suit: prohibitively expensive and visually ridiculous. In a particularly complicated stunt, they created a fake version of the New York Times announcing everything from the end of the war in Iraq to the creation of a maximum wage law. They have provoked, embarrassed, ridiculed and shocked many captains of industry. Driven, ultimately, by the desire to address serious issues with humor and radical intervention, The Yes Men Fix the World in a documentary that pits itself against unchecked greed.
Inhabitat got a glimpse of this gut-punch of a film at the Bioneers Moving Image Festival, surrounded by the Bay Area glory of activist grandmas and eco-nerds. This is definitely a great film to watch in a crowd of like-minded folk– many opportunities for outraged gasps and breakouts of applause. But even if you think it’s rude to hand people candles that smell like human flesh, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of a Yes Men intervention.
Those candles, for instance, are samples of a new product — Vivoleum — unveiled by the Yes Men at a petroleum conference. The future of the industry, they argued, speaking as representatives of Exxon and the National Petroleum Council, is the search for alternative fuels, the use of waste as energy — and what better misused resource than the flesh of victims of climate change? “After all, 150,000 people already die from climate-change related effects every year. That’s only going to go up – maybe way, way up. Will it all go to waste? That would be cruel,” said Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum. The pranksters were summarily escorted from the building, leaving the audience open-mouthed, and holding some pretty scary candles.
Probably the most painfully awkward prank goes down at a Gulf Coast Reconstruction Conference after a speech by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Pretending that he is actually a Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bichlbaum declares that New Orleans public housing, long closed off to its former tenants, will be reopened, and that several major oil corporations will be funding the reconstruction of Louisiana wetlands. After the speech, a particularly gung-ho journalist corners the Yes Men and calls them “liars,” playing a “cruel joke” on Louisiana residents. It’s an accusation the duo get for many of their stunts. Contrary to expectation, many victims of the real-life injustices that they bring attention to are just glad to have their issues acknowledged and discussed. The hope is that discussion will lead to real change: the journalist’s story becomes about the prank and its issues, not lies.
That’s kind of the point. Beyond the fact that WTO reps have houses and kids, that contractors in New Orleans want everyone to have a home, that everyone is trying their damnedest to do something good within the web of profit, consumption, production and regulation, the Yes Men ask: What Is Happening? Why haven’t the victims of Bhopal been compensated? Why isn’t there a radical wetlands reconstruction project in Louisiana? Why on earth would you create a life-saving suit so expensive that few people could afford it? The pranksters are constantly reevaluating their actions and their effectiveness in creating actual change. That’s the essential gut-punch of the film, and it sets us up beautifully to enjoy the near-Utopian articles in their version of the New York Times. So far, The Yes Men may have only fixed the world on paper, but they’ve left us believing that someday the fixes could stick.