The Human Rights Watch 20th International Film Festival closed last week with a righteous guffaw.
The Yes Men Fix the World left a packed Walter Reade Theater in tears of laughter… and social awareness. The documentary drew its comic prowess from the hysterical deformity of corporate America’s moral compass. And while it’s hard not to laugh at a lodestone that points to a bottom line, it’s also hard not to see the danger in such a perversion.
The second documentary created by “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, Fix the World begins with a voice over explaining that Andy is getting ready to impersonate a DOW spokesperson on the BBC in front of 300 million people, “…and that’s why he looks so nervous.” Some well-assembled backtracking shows us how The Yes Men function. For the most part, they create fake websites said to represent the various unjust organizations of the world, and wait until people fall into the trap and contact them. They then take various opportunities, for example, to participate in conferences, or to appear on international television.
Early in the film, Mike presents at a conference as a so-called representative of DOW. He claims to have created a model by which a company can calculate whether the human life an enterprise may cost is worth the probable monetary benefit. A character they have created personifies the model: Gilda, a gold skeleton. Alluding to a tragedy that occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984 when a plant belonging Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of DOW, released 42 tons of toxic gas into the air, Mike explained how a worthwhile “gold skeleton” can be differentiated from a futile “skeleton in the closet”: Mike asks, “how many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twelve. One to screw it in, and eleven to file the lawsuit. How many Indians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Oh, just one.” The Yes Men hoped that the concept of such a model would shock and disturb a room full of white collars, but instead the group embraced it with applause.
Unfortunately, all of the Yes Men’s other attempts at unearthing hearts beneath suits are similarly futile. It is thus that the documentary becomes not a story of problems fixed, but of problems illuminated. This is best illustrated by the pair’s biggest stunt. Masquerading as “Jude Finisterra,” a representative of DOW, Andy went on the BBC and promised at long last to compensate the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Upon realizing the hoax, DOW immediately released a statement saying that no such compensation would be provided, even though the hoax made it pretty evident that this would be the right thing to do.
Despite this stunt’s impotence when it came to actually changing corporate policy, Andy said in a Q and A following the evening’s screening that he saw the BBC appearance as the Yes Men’s biggest victory, because it succeeded in arousing awareness about the Bhopal tragedy. According to Green Peace, hundreds of articles that would have otherwise went unwritten came into being as a result of the hoax. While Andy concluded in the Q and A that, “DOW would never do the right thing” on its own, he sees a possible solution in further regulation of corporations on the part of the government. The hope is that the Yes Men’s reawakening of public awareness will somehow translate into public policy.
The most optimistic move the Yes Men make is the mass distribution of a “special edition” of the New York Times. Researched and compiled by a huge team of Yes Men, the paper is a vision of what the world could be like at a point in the future. Given that the future date chosen for headlines such as “Iraq War Ends,” and “Maximum Wage Law Passes,” is this Saturday, July 4, 2009, it’s obvious that the paper’s socialistic optimism is more than a little bit cock-eyed. But that’s the big upside of keeping your tongue in your cheek: outrageous hope.
The Yes Men Fix the World has its television premiere on HBO July 27. It will be screening at Film Forum beginning October 7.
-Morgan H. Green