Jacques Servin (aka Andy Bichlbaum) and Mike Bonanno, collectively known as The Yes Men, are a guerrilla-comedy activist duo.
Their first two films, 2003’s The Yes Men and 2009’s The Yes Men Fix The World, garnered acclaim and attention for their unique style of activism where they impersonate those whom they oppose to provoke change. Often, their stunts are shocking and over-the-top – but humorous. They have a penchant for impersonating executives from large corporations to prove a point, as when Servin impersonated a Dow Chemical Company spokesperson who appeared to apologize for the Bhopal (India) disaster on the 20th anniversary of the deadly chemical accident. Their newest film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, centers around Climate Change and movements like Occupy Wall Street. They brought the film to Israel for a screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last month. While in Israel, Servin participated in the Art Cube Artists’ Studios International Artist Residency program, with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation.
Can you talk about the previous two ‘Yes Men’ films and what led up to this third installment? Mike and I met in 1996 and started doing some fun projects together. Then we set up a satirical website for the World Trade Organization (WTO); a kind of Jonathan Swift-type Modest Proposal. It was a site that was made to look like the real one.
We chose the WTO because there were thousands of activists headed to Seattle at that time to shut down their meeting. So it was the right target at the time.
The WTO is the body that makes international rules for governments and corporations.
They basically allow corporations to do what they want without governments interfering, reducing government power over them. In 1994, the Sabatistas declared war on Mexico on the same day that NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) began. That was also about free trade over human rights.
So this issue was the thing to focus on.
We set up the website and the WTO reacted to it with a press release, saying that we were deplorable. That really surprised us. We sent out the press release to all the people on our mailing list, and they found it funny and wrote about it.
There were a bunch of links to it, which search engines started picking up, and we began getting emails meant for the WTO.
People would search for the WTO online, and they would find our website instead of the real one.
One day, we got an email inviting us to speak at a conference, thinking that we were the real WTO. It took us about three months to decide what to do with that, but finally we responded that yes, we would come speak. We went to Austria and gave this crazy talk about free trade. We said that we wanted to privatize democracy, so that corporations can actually buy votes directly from citizens, instead of just financing campaigns and all that.
We thought we would get kicked out, but instead, they just applauded. So that was the first thing that we did as the Yes Men.
After that, we got other invitations from people who thought we were the real WTO to come and speak. We filmed all of this, and that became the first movie.
So the Yes Men happened accidentally? Yeah, we set out with the intention to do something to feed into this movement that was anti-WTO and anti-globalization.
Since we happen to know how to make a website that was good enough to copy the look of the real one, everything else just fell into place and happened by accident. That’s an important point. The stuff we do depends a lot on movements; being a part of a movement, but not knowing how exactly things are going to work. While it’s important to have a specific road map to get to a better place, it’s also important to have a vision of a better world and then just try stuff. You have to be ready for accidents because we don’t know how change happens, or how things get better, but they do. When enough people want things to get better and throw energy at it, it happens.
How was the screening at the Cinematheque in Jerusalem? It was great, we had a full house. People loved it and asked really good questions afterwards. A bunch of people told me that they were inspired, and that they felt it was very relevant to what’s going on in Israel, and what progressive Jews can do to try to make a difference.
The film is about a hopeless situation: climate change. With films like this, we do things and they get out there, which is wonderful. So we’re successful in the sense that people pay attention, but then nothing changes and we wonder why we’re doing any of this. Why bother? A lot of activists ask themselves that question because you put so much effort in and then nothing changes. But toward the end of the film, the Occupy movement erupted in New York. A bunch of people involved with that told us that they got their start in activism by watching our films. We realized that all the stuff we’ve been doing all along, although it hasn’t made a big difference, it fed into this movement that became Occupy.
So that was a lesson: even though actions fail and it seems like nothing is moving, we don’t always see how things are actually moving. In Israel, I think this is really relevant because in the occupied territories, there are people who want to put an end to it by finding a good solution that makes everybody happy. But it’s easy to lose hope because there are so many people who don’t feel that way.
It’s maybe a more desperate situation than with climate change. At least with climate change, science says one thing very clearly. Nature is on our side because things are in fact getting worse. Eventually, everybody is going to come around, although it may be too late.
Do you think it’s hard to get people to pay attention to the issue of climate change because American culture is so ADD and in-your-face that if they don’t see it happening right in front of them, it’s as if it’s not really happening? Yes, I think that’s true because it’s gradual change. But I think the same could be said for the future of Israel. It’s really hard to have the patience that’s needed to see something good happen. We get into these habits of thinking, “okay, this just happened, so now I’m going to feel a certain way and act a certain way. Basically, they did that and now I hate them.” That’s the norm; we’re all experts at doing that. With climate change, it becomes, “I want to drive my car because I need to get there. Or, I need to fly in a plane because I need to get there.” It’s hard to remember that we can affect things in more ways than just our purchases. We can affect policy, but it takes a lot of patience.
How have you found the reactions to the film screenings? In America, since the subject matter is climate change and social movements like Occupy, people read it very directly.
Social movements can happen and we can fix climate change and all the other problems that come out of high-octane capitalism. There is a scene at the end of the movie where we go to a Homeland Security conference posing as the US Department of Energy, and we announce that we’re going to convert the US entirely to renewable energy within 30 years.
We say we’re going to dismantle all fossil fuels, and convert the whole grid to wind and solar. It’s actually possible, but it’s not politically likely.
We also say that we’re going to put a lot of the renewable energy installations on Native American land as partial reparations for genocide. We did this with a couple of Native American friends that we have. One of them then gets up and leads the defense contractors and the Homeland Security contractors in a celebratory circle dance for renewable energy revolution. It was really funny because these are people who we think of as being on the dark side, and they were just really happy to participate in this dance. So, American audiences read these scenes very directly and were inspired. The Israeli audience read the film as a story about coming up with a solution to the crisis here in Israel. That’s why I was excited to bring it here. But I don’t think it’s so easy.
If you asked a bunch of settlers to get up and dance for a united Israel with equal rights for everybody, I don’t think they would do it.
What’s the best question you’ve received from an audience member so far? One Jerusalem audience member asked how a progressive Jew can battle the self-censorship and fear that they face.
I said that it’s about utopian thinking.
What would it look like to have a State of Israel with a real democracy, that didn’t have a separation between Palestinian and Jew? Okay, so maybe there’s a demographic problem with the Palestinians outnumbering the Jews, but is there a solution to that? Define the vision first, then go about trying to find the solution.
That’s the kind of broad thinking that we need right now. Imagine what’s possible, then worry about trying to get there. People often think that they need a leader, but we are all change-makers.
It’s important to develop these ideas and spread them like a language. We’re used to this one language, but let’s change the meaning of the words and even the words themselves. So when the time comes that the political situation is such for a real leader to arise, these ideas are already out there and ready to be applied in a bigger way.
The Yes Men Are Revolting is screening in the United States and Canada until the end of August, for more information go to http://theyesmenarerevolting.com.