Twenty Minutes with The Yes Men

It seems no World Trade Organization (WTO) conference is complete without massive demonstrations and arrests. Andy Bilchbaum and Mike Bonnano waged their fight against the WTO differently - by pretending to be the WTO. Bilchbaum and Bonnano practice what they call "identity correction," portraying an organization as what they believe it really is, not how it portrays itself. They set up a parody WTO website, which worked so well that many people did not realize it was a parody. Bilchbaum and Bonnano found themselves receiving invitations to speak on behalf of the WTO, which they eagerly accepted.

The Yes Men, a new documentary from Chris Smith, Sarah Price (who both co-directed American Movie) and Dan Ollman, follows Bilchbaum and Bonnano as they speak on television and at business conferences under the WTO's guise. Much of the humor comes from their outlandish presentations (such as offering a gold suit with a giant phallus as the latest in corporate efficiency). But what's even funnier is that they get away with it. In some ways, that's also the scary part - that so few people questioned what they said. Their audiences, filled with educated people, just sit and nod. The Yes Men skillfully demonstrates that many people will accept anything if the messenger has an appearance of authority.

Never ones to rest on their laurels, The Yes Men had just finished infiltrating the Republican National Convention when I talked with them a few weeks ago:

Adam Spector - It's fall of an election year. There are plenty of politically themed, more left-wing films coming out. Do you think this is the right time for The Yes Men?

Andy Bilchbaum - Yeah, it's great. George Bush has created an incredible ferment in the film community, and you see all of these incredible films coming out because of the situation where a completely unreasonable and bizarre radical government just spurs creative people to make films about it. So, yeah the ground has been laid by all kinds of films. Yeah, I think people are ready to see it. Maybe by MTV . . .

Mike Bonnano - Yeah, there's a little bit of that too. So many reality shows have become so popular that I think people are much more accepting of documentaries as well. But also people are just craving in-depth material. You can't turn on the TV news and expect to see anything longer than a 1½ to 3 minute segment about a really important issue. When somebody comes out with a film that treats the issues with more depth, or, in our case, more humor and not the depth, then people really want to go see it.

AS - Let's stay on that for a moment. Many groups have gone after the WTO straight on. Why do you feel that humor is a more effective way to do that?

AB - We don't think it's a more effective way to do that. We just stumbled into it. We're kind of comedians in a sense. We're funny people. Well, we're not that funny. [laughs] Really, we're hysterical people, very clever. [more laughter] We're extremely clumsy people. We stumble into things. We were doing a lot of stuff along this line for a couple of years in different ways and one thing led to another and we ended up . . . We're also politically engaged of course. We've been doing politically engaged stuff forever.

MB - Do you even remember the question?

AB - Yes, I vaguely remember the question. [more laughter] . . . It was all over the news that tens of thousands of people were converging on Seattle so we just set up this website and it's how we stumbled on to it. It wasn't that we chose the WTO as a particularly good target or this means of doing it as a better way of doing it. It happened and it turns out to be a good symbol . . . Humor has managed to get our story across to a lot of people but the other ways of doing things are more essential. Changing laws on the ground, going and lobbying to have things changed in a substantial way.

MB - But this is a great way to get people interested who might otherwise not be. OK, somebody who right now doesn't care about what global trade might mean to them might go see this movie and think, the next time they hear the words "free trade," they might think "Hey, I know that's not necessarily what they say it is. Freedom for trade doesn't necessarily mean freedom for people. It doesn't mean that everybody is benefitting somehow."

AB - And maybe they can't necessarily trust the people who are working on this . . .

AS - You've done this type of thing before, but did it get any harder to go in and infiltrate these groups with this camera crew following you?

AB - Psychologically it was easier because there were people there who were friendly. But you mean was it technically more difficult? And no, they just seemed to think it was normal, the audiences we spoke to and the organizers. They just thought "Well the WTO is very important, of course they would have a camera crew. They (the crew) made up stories like we we're doing a documentary about the textiles of the future. They always made up stories like that. But it wasn't really that necessary.

AS - Along those lines, one of the reasons you've been able to succeed as much as you have is because of your anonymity. Now, with the film coming out, are you at all concerned that you will lose your anonymity, that it will be harder to do this type of thing in the future?

MB - Not to worry. We've got plans. If we get popular and famous enough to lose our anonymity, then we're going to do an extreme makeover TV show. [laughs] We'll be the first guests and hosts. [laughs] You'll never know. We may just get ourselves made over to look like this guy [points to picture of President Bush], our smiling current President leader guy. Yeah, you never really know.

AS - And you were saying before we started that this was the next item on your agenda.

MB - Yeah, we've turned our attention to that fellow who lives in the White House. It's an uphill struggle correcting his identity but we're going to try.

AS - How do you two support yourselves? How do you make money for room and board? I wouldn't think that this would bring in money.

AB - There's a big market for it, it turns out, but yeah, we both have day jobs, or I used to have a day job. Recently I've been living off grants that we have gotten and savings. I've been fired from a number of different kinds of work. Computer programming, teaching, writing jobs.

MB - And I currently work at a university.

AS - Troy University?

MB - Yeah, very supportive, sort of. [laughs] They don't necessarily know about it, but I did just get tenure. [laughs]

AS - Well, I'm sure the students are (supportive).

MB - Yeah, they are. I care about teaching. I make sure they don't get too frustrated by my weird other life. [laughs]

AS - What are your hopes for this film, both in terms of your own organization and your greater goals?

MB - We hope that we sell more tickets than The Passion of the Christ. [laughs] We hope that church groups gather and promote it like they did The Passion of the Christ.

AB - If we gross even 3/4 of what The Passion did we'll be happy. [laughs] No crucifixion scenes in the movie but . . .

MB - Yeah, but we could put one in. [laughs] Call Chris.

AB - In our movie you don't know how it ends. [Striking a mock authoritarian tone] Get a crucifixion scene in that movie!!!

AS - Did the directors make demands on you as they were filming or did they stay back and let you guys do your thing?

AB - They all stood back and followed us basically. We would do things and they would ask us to recapitulate. We would have to stop, look at the camera and say something periodically but the interference wasn't greater than that. Very often we forgot they were there.

AS - Both when you were giving your presentations and when you were planning them?

AB - Yeah. Surely we ended up thinking "Wow, this might be in the movie." So that influenced us in some way, but it wasn't the main thing. The main thing was to keep trying to make the message get across to the audiences.

AS - The golden phallus uniform, for lack of a better term, is certainly a striking visual component. Did you do that in particular because there was camera there or have you done things like that beyond just your PowerPoint presentation without the camera there.

AB - Beyond being good on camera, it's good in the media. You can take a picture and immediately it's as a snapshot of what the WTO is, so it works that way just as well as it does on camera. Everything we've done has been that kind of thing. It's been the kind of thing where you could take a figurative snapshot of it and just say one word. We've sent out press releases about things for eight years or so now systematically and the headlines are always snapshots, if that makes any sense, which it may not. [laughs]

AS - You said you got some flak from the WTO early on. Do you expect any more once the movie comes out?

MB - No. The WTO underwent a transformation during the time we were impersonating them. In 1999, when we first put the mimicking website up, they sent a press release calling it deplorable, saying these fake websites were terrible . . . And they sent us legal threats, not very threatening letters, but just asking us to stop basically. But then, over the years they sort of changed their tune until at the very end when we dissolved the WTO in Sydney, Australia, announcing the end of it and the replacement with a new, more humane Trade Regulation Organization that would have human needs as its bottom line. By then they sort of knew not to criticize us directly.

AS - Because it would get you guys more publicity?

MB - Exactly. They actually said in response to the journalists who asked about us and about the event, dissolving the WTO, they said "Well, these guys are really funny. We admire what they've done. [laughs] But we're addressing issues they're concerned about." That was their response. So it changed drastically over the years. And we think that there's no way they would actually have an interest in suing us. Also, it's not like a corporation that's protecting its intellectual property. There are ideas there that they are protecting, its intellectual property, but it's much more nebulous. It's a large bureaucracy composed of many different member countries. They don't have an apparatus for attacking people who are criticizing them the way corporations have. It's an important part of a corporation.

AS - The same question then, with corporations. One of the things you did in the movie was a very pointed proposal for a McDonalds type restaurant, for recycling food, for lack of a better term. Any flak from the corporations, or for that matter from any of the conferences you have gone to posing as the WTO and then later found out who you are. Have they ever gotten on your case?

AB - No. We'd love to get in trouble with McDonalds though, because legally, we asked around about this actually, we had to get second opinions and all this stuff for legal reasons. The lawyers basically said "For them to sue you, you'd have to argue that an audience could reasonably be confused and believe that this was a real McDonalds program." And so, if they have to argue that, that's fantastic . . . let's see them argue it. And no, we've never gotten in trouble with any (of the conferences). . . actually one guy did say (to the WTO) "Are you going to stop them? Are you going to sue them?" And the WTO said "Well, no."

AS - I read in some of the press materials that your success has spawned a lot of fellow Yes Men. I assume this is something that you're proud of. Do they come to you for advice?

AB - They're these two guys from Denmark who have been going around the country as "Danes for Bush." [laughs]

AS - They're country or here?

AB - The U.S. in a van as "Danes for Bush" campaigning for Bush, meeting with G. Gordon Liddy. They were just on the front page of the New York Times. A big picture of "There's kooky Republicans, including them." [laughs] It's unbelievable.

MB - Yeah. They're out there. We'd like to have 300,000 Yes Men, but there are still millions of open positions. We're hiring for metaphysical money.

AS - You must be proud then. You feel like you started a movement?

AB - I don't think we've started a movement.

MB - No, but a lot of people are doing creative activism. It's fun and we enjoy it.

AB - And it's easy relatively, compared to changing laws.

MB - Or playing field hockey.

AB - Or playing field hockey. [laughs] Much easier.

AS - So it sounds like you're happier having people with you than being the lone voices in the wind.

AB - Yes. [laughs] We're glad that they're a lot of other people doing the kind of stuff we're doing. Many have been doing it for longer than us and it's great.

Adam Spector
September 28, 2004

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