In the third movie from the prankster activists, The Yes Men, made up of Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, they set their sights on what they see as the biggest issue facing the world today — climate change.
However, unlike their first two films, they also turn the cameras on themselves and one of the main story lines in the film is how the two address what it means to dedicate your life to activism.
This self-examination leads to the inevitable question, “Does what we do really make a difference?”
Of course, one good way to find out the answer to that question is to engage some corporations in a little theater of the absurd, which also makes for good movie fodder.
If you were making a documentary about climate change and activism and you were based in New York City, you couldn’t time it much better than the Yes Men did for this project. During the multi-year process of making the movie, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, where Bichlbaum lives. Footage of flooded NYC streets, an eerily dark NYC skyline and tours of the aftermath certainly help make their point that climate change is serious business already.
Additionally, while they were making the movie, Occupy Wall Street happened which provided the scene for one of their simplest yet more creative actions, providing a nice surprise and laugh for the audience.
In the movie the Occupy movement is shown as providing the spark that The Yes Men need to get back in the saddle and back to doing what they do best. Bichlbaum says he is reinvigorated by Occupy seeing all of these people who “think the same things we do.”
Which seems to answer the question that they have been struggling with about whether their work is worth all of the sacrifice. In the trailer the voiceover points out, “To keep going we’ve got to be part of something bigger than ourselves.” And clearly Occupy and the climate justice movement fill that need.
It isn’t hard to see the pure joy on Bichlbaum’s face when he is at an Occupy rally and says, “Young people are aiming to overthrow the U.S. financial system” and then throws his hands in the air triumphantly.
However, the movie isn’t all pranks and uplifting stories. There is a trip to Uganda to see the impacts of climate change where they hear rural farmers talk about big rainstorms wiping out crops and a woman describing how they are reduced to eating what appear to be weeds.
A visit to Canada with Gitz Crazyboy, a Canadian tar sands activist, is perhaps the most chilling scene in the movie. The three travel to a tar sands production location. As they look out on a grey and black wasteland of stripped earth and waste ponds that is the result of tar sands mining, Crazyboy states, “this all used to be forests.” It is like seeing the darkest part of a modern live version of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, except with absolutely no trees remaining.
And while there is significantly more non-prank content in this movie compared to the first two, it wouldn’t be a Yes Men movie without several of their trademark actions. While at least one fails in a big way, these parts of the movie are all quite entertaining.
Seeing this movie in 2015 also highlights the challenges facing climate and economic justice activists. Occupy was shut down by the government and one of its self-described “co-creators” has just published a piece called “Protest is broken.” And one of the main actions in the movie targets Shell’s 2012 plans to drill in the Arctic.
We now know that, several years later, more protests are happening as Shell has sent two drilling rigs north for Arctic exploration. When questioned about this recent development after a screening of the movie in Albany, NY, Bonanno concluded, “The only thing to do is keep fighting.”
In the movie and in a Q&A afterwards with Bonanno, it was made very clear that making activist movies about climate change isn’t a path to riches. Both the Yes Men still have day jobs as art professors. And in between spending time on globetrotting actions, Bonanno is raising three children with his wife.
And if this point wasn’t clear, after the Albany screening, Bonanno was at a table selling books and other merchandise in the lobby to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the targets of the Yes Men like Shell Oil and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have virtually unlimited funds to tell their side of the story. And although this presents obvious challenges the one thing that the Yes Men certainly have on their side — and what appears to have been able to keep them doing this for over 15 years — is that when one of their actions/pranks is going well, they appear to be having a whole lot of fun.
As proof that they definitely aren’t getting out of the activism game they have launched a new website called the Action Switchboard. It’s designed to bring together people to replicate their approach to activism as well as offer training via their Incubator.
In the post screening Q&A, Bonanno responded to an Albany activist asking about “what can be done” by pointing out that Albany is ground zero for the bomb train fight and that “there is a lot to do here.”
That sums up the message of the Yes Men pretty well.
Come up with a scheme. Make a sign on the back of a pizza box. Sit down on some train tracks. And start revolting.