The Yes Men Fix the World, is the follow-up to 2003’s The Yes Men, chronicling the further adventures of world-renowned “culture jammers” and “gonzo activists” Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum. Their modus operandi is simple: set up a fake website parodying a corporation or government agency and wait. (A few of their targets include Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Chamber of Commerce and Halliburton.)
Surprisingly, invitations begin to arrive: to conferences, to interviews, to live audiences on CNN. When the film opens, we find the duo in Paris in 2004. The BBC has invited Andy Bichlbaum, in the guise of an executive from Dow Chemical, to give an interview. It is part of their coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, in which a chemical plant owned by Union Carbide (which is now owned by Dow Chemical), exploded in Bhopal, India.
The explosion killed thousands and left environmental contamination which even now continues to cause chronic illness and birth defects among the local inhabitants. In front of an audience of 300 million, Bichlbaum announces Dow’s commitment to invest $12 billion in victim compensation and cleanup, and expresses his confidence that the shareholders will be willing to forgo a little profit to be part of such a “historic” act of right-doing.
The hoax is now legendary — Dow’s stock lost $2 billion in 20 minutes, and the company was forced to issue a statement dispelling the notion that it was prepared to do anything for the people of Bhopal.
When interviewing Bichlbaum and Bonanno (as themselves) about the hoax, many journalists admonished them for giving false hope to the victims and toying with their emotions. When the Yes Men travel to Bhopal, however, they find that the victims see things differently. The locals meet them with appreciation for having brought attention to their continuing plight, and for publicly humiliating the company which has never fully compensated them for its wrongs.
Bilchlbaum and Bonanno are often accused of being liars; they insist that the entities they impersonate are the ones who lie. They claim they are the ones telling the truth when, again representing Dow Chemical, they give a presentation of a new method for corporate risk assessment; or when they unveil a new fuel made from the future victims of climate change on behalf of ExxonMobil.
While posing as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bichlbaum and Bonanno reverse its public housing policy in New Orleans so that the displaced poor can return. However, when they present their distortions of reality, the Yes Men do not present the untruth of the world, but the possibility of the world as it could be.
This moments invite the listener to ask why these lies cannot be the reality, and they are the moments in which the Yes Men are at their best. Toward the end of the film, they publish a fake special edition of the New York Times with the tagline, “All the news we hope to print.”
The Yes Men’s gift lies in helping us to re-imagine our own potential, and in helping us to remember that we have, all of us together, made the world as it is. Together, we could make it however we wish it to be.
Originally published in The Concordian.