Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano began their second careers as political pranksters in 1999, with the creation of a parody site, www.GWBush.com, which resulted in a series of “cease and desist” letters from the Bush campaign and then governor Bush's now infamous statement that there “out to be limits to be freedom.” The site cleverly appropriated the imagery and web design from the official George W. Bush web site, while highlighting the inconsistencies and distortions in Bush's record as governor of Texas. Flush with success (and media attention), Bichlbaum and Bonnano turned their attention to pursuing an anti-globalization agenda, via another parody web site, www.gatt.org (named for the predecessor to the WTO, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), as well as impersonating WTO representatives on television and at conferences. Through the gatt.org site, Bichlbaum and Bonnano received invitations to various conferences around the world, from Europe to Australia. The remainder of the documentary follows Bichlbaum and Bonnano as they brainstorm and prepare for the conferences.
The documentary has two, at times hilarious, high points, a conference in Finland where the merry pranksters give a presentation on the “new” slavery, the offshore workforce located in so-called developing countries, complete with a PowerPoint demonstration and 3D animation. Bichlbaum and Bonnano also offhandedly discuss a new innovation just being developed in the United States, a web-based auction system for the buying and selling of votes in political elections. Their audience reacts passively. Their presentation culminates with the unveiling of a new, high-tech leisure suit for upper-level managers, complete with an inflatable phallus and monitor. This new leisure suit ostensibly allows the wearer to engage in exercise, while monitoring his direct reports at home, and his workforce abroad. Again, the audience reacts with sheepish acceptance.
Disappointed at the lack of reaction to their first prank, Bichlbaum and Bonnano decide to attend another WTO conference, this time in Australia. Unfortunately, the conference is cancelled at the last minute, and Bichlbaum and Bonnano are forced to turn a dry run at a local university into the actual presentation. This time, Bichlbaum and Bonnano push harder, unveiling something called “ReBurger,” recycled hamburgers made, to be put it euphemistically, from “post-consumer waste.” The ReBurger is intended to feed the world's poor, while safeguarding and increasing corporate profits for its manufacturers. The meaning behind ReBurgers slowly dawns on the audience of economic students, many of whom protest at the concept of feeding meat recycled from post-consumer waste to the world's poor. Some leave in anger and disgust, but Bichlbaum and Bonnano leave the university satisfied that they have, at least momentarily and superficially, raised the political consciousness of a handful of university students.
The Yes Men concludes with a final, less elaborate prank, but almost as effective as the ReBurger prank. After cajoling the planners for the Australian to hold a press conference, Bichlbaum and Bonnano declare that the WTO will disband as presently constituted and reform under new leadership and new principles, primarily the UN Charter on Universal Human Rights. Several of the reporters at the press conference express surprise at the development, but also optimism that the newly reformed WTO will now function as an agent for social change and transformation, and not just corporatization and globalization. With the self-proclaimed end of the WTO, Bichlbaum and Bonnano's pranks seem to have reached a natural end. The documentary leaves open Bichlbaum and Bonnano's next course of action.
The Yes Men's principal shortcoming, however, can be found in the superficial explanation of the WTO and its underlying purpose. The documentary filmmakers either presume a compliant audience susceptible to a one-dimensional portrait of the WTO and its responsibility for a large share of the world's evils, or a well-informed audience knowledgeable in the intricacies of trade policy. In either case, the filmmakers should have provided the audience with a more detailed primer, pro and con, on the WTO and its structure and policies. By focusing almost exclusively on The Yes Men and their pranks, the audience leaves the film more impressed by the originality of their antics than that their actions are meaningful, correct, or likely to have anything except an evanescent effect on public discourse.
© Mel Valentin, 10th October, 2004
What do you think of The Yes Men
Share your opinions on our forum