Film Review: The Yes Men are Revolting (Human Rights Watch Film Festival)

Filmmaker(s): Laura Nix and the Yes Men

Year: 2014 / 90m/ 19 March UK Premiere

Screening at Human Rights Watch Film Festival London 2015.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Even if you don’t know them by name, you’ve probably seen or heard about The Yes Men in action. The Yes Men are the culture jamming duo of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who operate as a social justice-focused prankster comedy activist act designed to highlight injustice around the world. They lie their way into corporate events and arrange bogus press conferences, feeding false stories to a lazy media. They are the guys who dressed up a bunch of fellow campaigners in giant inflatable climate change protection suits called “Survivaballs” and had them wade out into New York’s Hudson River, and who once laid on a fake-yet-convincing U.N Climate Change press conference where they staged a Canadian Government announcement that Nigeria would be soon in receipt of $13bn of climate debt payment. They’ve been doing this for decades, and their antics have featured in two films before (The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix The World), but director Laura Nix is more interested in the personal side of things this time around.

Following the duo as they balance family and prankster life, the film covers the last six years or so of their relationship. It is soon clear that Nix has joined the pair at a testing time. Neither man is in their 20s anymore, both have teaching jobs to maintain, Andy has a long term boyfriend finally whilst Mike has a family with a third baby on the way, and eventually moves to Scotland. In one of the more surprising and touching scenes, we hear Mike confess that he hasn’t told Ian at all about baby number three even as the delivery date looms, worried that this will be interpreted as another obstacle in a relationship that is already starting to fray under a mix of commitments and disillusionment. Theirs has been a long bromance, as archive footage shows, which has cost both of them romantic relationships in the past, and Andy doesn’t hide his frustration at Mike’s distance from certain activist events in the present day that he continues to get involved in.

It is quite moving to see this odd couple look back on their intense platonic relationship, based as it is around such a strange profession and irregular hours, with little if any financial reward. There are some frank admissions, especially from Mike (who seems the more weary of the two) that activism can be exhausting and incompatible with family life and other interests, and there is always the temptation to just “drop out”. Nix’s film connects their dilemmas to recent political developments however, as the New York occupy moment and related global protests re-energise the pair once more after the failure of the UN summit at Copenhagen, into which so many activists, the Yes Men included, poured their hopes.

The Yes Men’s pranking and provoking in the pursuit of a liberal agenda lies at the heart of the success of satirical news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report today, putting them in fine company. And their short-burst, high impact tactics seems ready made for the Youtube and smartphone camera era today. They clearly have guts, and an eye for opportunity. Naturally, the film’s high points are where we see just how wacky the pair’s pranks can get whilst still carrying confused bystanders along with them. They once so effectively pranked the US Chamber of Commerce lobbying group, setting up a fake press conference to declare that the USCOC was now in favour of Obama’s climate change agenda and getting major news networks around the US to swallow it straight-faced, that they were hit with a lawsuit. Its hard to know what is more frightening, that the world’s elites can be so dumb, or journalists can be so gullible.

Running a brisk 90 minutes, this mix of biography and polemic doesn’t really delve too deep into the complexities of the various political situations, or really critique the effectiveness of taking the comedy route to drive progressive change. But it is charming and heartfelt, and might just inspire you to get out the placards and start doing something.

Film Review: The Yes Men are Revolting (Human Rights Watch Film Festival)
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