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The Yes Men

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-02-18

The Yes Men

The Yes Men

One of the first must-see movies of 2005 is The Yes Men, a documentary following the exploits of Jewish pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonano.

The pair, who met eight years ago, have made a name for themselves setting up websites that spoof those of huge global corporations and organisations – and have made such a good job of it that they have even been invited to speak at conferences around the world as representatives of the World Trade Organisation. More recently, the pair hit the headlines after Bichlbaum impersonated a representative of Dow Chemical on BBC World, saying on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India that the company accepted full responsibility for what happened.

Over the course of the film, we see them deliver a series of increasingly ludicrous lectures to receptive audiences in all corners of the globe, including Finland, the US and Australia – and getting away with it. As the film opens in the UK, SJ’s Caroline Westbrook chats to Bichlbaum about some of their more successful pranks, as well as the pair’s Jewish origins…

How did you guys meet and when?
About eight years ago, after the Simcopter incident, right after that I hadn’t expected that to be a media story at all, I had just done it off the cuff, but it turned out to get so much media attention I thought maybe this was something other people should try, little pranks and get media attention. And then I contacted a couple of friends who said I should talk to the guy who did the Barbie Liberation Organisation. So I immediately contacted him and we understood each other’s ideas, had each other’s taste in food and both had grandfathers who died in the Holocaust, which was a parallel we couldn’t have anticipated. But even though we had the same taste in mischief and ideas, we also had the same family background.

Does it ever surprise you that people believe what you tell them?
Well yes, that was another shock at first. We intended to portray globalisation as grotesquely as we feel it, and we thought it would be so obvious to our audience, we didn’t know what would happen. And when they didn’t we had to really rethink things and figure it out. And we came to the conclusion that we weren’t exaggerating things at all, our crazy versions of free trade weren’t so far from the real thing.

Has a stunt ever gone wrong?
Yeah, once during the summer, we were impersonating the Bush campaign and the first time we went to a conference about child safety on the Internet. We came up with this really ridiculous talk – it was the first time we’d tried real physical comedy – we had a shrink-wrapped baby and we dunked it in a bucket of water. It was over the top and they got it and chased us away. But whatever else we did – we got a big campaign truck, we came up with all kinds of costumes, all kinds of things, and people still thought we were the Bush campaign. There seemed to be no end to which we could lead people.

Are you concerned now you’ve been seen on film it won’t be so easy to pull off stunts because people will recognise you?
Well, we thought maybe but the other day we actually did a little stunt in London and here, after the Bhopal thing, and the fact we were plastered over the media, we thought it would be really tough, but I just shaved my head and put on some glasses and I looked really different. But if it did happen it wouldn’t be a great tragedy because neither of us is really cut out for this kind of thing. Neither of us has much acting background at all, in fact pretty much none, and it might actually be easier to have someone from an acting background to do this kind of thing.

How many people have signed up to be activists and have you had an increase in numbers since the film came out?
We have done, yeah. We don’t keep tabs on how many people have signed up but we have thousands in our database and periodically we email people asking them to help us, and people write in asking us for advice, and we do what we can.

What advice would you give to potential Jewish activists?
I don’t know, Jews of course have a particular history, we’re aware of the abuses of power in a particularly acute way, Jews still remember the Holocaust, Mike and I think that’s why we have a mistrust of power and where demagoguery can lead. Unfortunately I think a lot of Jews in the United States think that you have to be very very militarily strong to stand up to any threat, and I think that’s the wrong lesson. I mean the vast majority of Jews here voted against Bush but there’s a disturbing neo-Conservative trend as well.

Which Jewish activists do you admire?
Abby Hoffman, Lenny Bruce I guess. I suppose there must have been a few tricksters in the Bible as well. But Abby Hoffman, in terms of recent American activists, was very important.

What’s your own background?
Eastern European, from Poland and Romania. I was born in Arizona. My father was born in Poland and lived through the Holocaust in Belgium, and Mike’s family is from Hungary.

Do you make money out of this sort of thing?
Oh, no, sadly we don’t. No, it doesn’t yet but we’re doing some TV things and that should keep us going.

The Yes Men opens in the UK on February 18. For more information, visit: www.theyesmen.org