The Yes Men
by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-02-18
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, SJs Caroline Westbrook chats to Bichlbaum about some of their more successful pranks, as well as the pairs Jewish origins
How did you guys meet and when?
About eight years ago, after the Simcopter incident, right after that I hadnt 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 others ideas, had each others taste in food and both had grandfathers who died in the Holocaust, which was a parallel we couldnt 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 didnt know what would happen. And when they didnt we had to really rethink things and figure it out. And we came to the conclusion that we werent exaggerating things at all, our crazy versions of free trade werent 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 wed 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 youve been seen on film it wont 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 wouldnt 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 dont 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 dont know, Jews of course have a particular history, were aware of the abuses of power in a particularly acute way, Jews still remember the Holocaust, Mike and I think thats 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 thats the wrong lesson. I mean the vast majority of Jews here voted against Bush but theres 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.
Whats 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 Mikes family is from Hungary.
Do you make money out of this sort of thing?
Oh, no, sadly we dont. No, it doesnt yet but were 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