By pulling a prank, ‘The Yes Men’ make a statement
An entity like the World Trade Organization, which usually operates away from the public gaze but has enormous influence across the map, gives off an air of super-competence to go with its sense of mystery. The organization makes multibillion-dollar decisions and, apart from the occasional public dust-up like the Seattle 1999 protest, seems to go about its business of directing nothing less than global trade with quiet efficiency. Clearly there are some smart people running that WTO.
In “The Yes Men,” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, two very clever men themselves whose politics land well to the left of the WTO, scrape away at that cloak of under-the-radar power. Bichlbaum and Bonnano not only expose the intelligence failings of the WTO, but also bring the Geneva-based conglomeration of 148 nations into the spotlight where, one assumes, it would prefer not to be.Unlike the recent spate of ideological-oriented documentaries – “Super Size Me,” “Outfoxed,” and Michael Moore’s films – which tackle their powerful subjects with facts, experts and their subject’s own missteps, “The Yes Men” takes a different tack. Bichlbaum and Bonnano – the “Yes Men” – are pranksters at heart, whose modus operandi is to infiltrate the castle in plain view of the king.”The Yes Men” opens with an account of Bichlbaum and Bonnano’s pestering of George W. Bush. Noting, just before Bush’s first presidential campaign, that the domain name georgewbush.org had not been registered, the Yes Men took the website to mock the future leader of the free world. The hints of cocaine use and taunts at Bush’s intellectual capacity provoked a response; the film includes news clips of Bush referring to the Yes Men as “garbage men.” (The website is still in the hands of anti-Bush forces, and hawks such items as bumper stickers with an image of Bush next to the phrase “Twit Happens.”)The stroke of inspiration was that the bogus website was designed to look just like Bush’s own site. Visitors to georgewbush.org expecting to read official Bush news would have a startling moment before realizing they were in the wrong corner of the cybersphere.
Bichlbaum and Bonnano take that methodology out of cyberspace and to the extreme in their infiltration of the WTO. Following the Bush prank, the Yes Men were advised that http://www.gatt.org was up for grabs. (GATT, the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, is the predecessor to the WTO). They snapped up the domain and built a site that not only looked identical to the WTO’s website, but pretended to be concerned with genuine economic issues.To their surprise, the Yes Men, through the gatt.org site, received invitations to speak at conferences and debate on television about world trade. Taking names that are both preposterous and highfalutin enough to be taken seriously – Granwyth Hulaberti and Hank Hardy Unruh – the Yes Men entered the global trade community. What makes “The Yes Men” an adequately provocative satire is not how Bichlbaum and Bonnano infiltrate the WTO, but how they are accepted without question by trade officials, reporters and academicians. Hank, giving a “Textiles of the Future” speech in Finland, yanks off his suit to reveal a gold outfit with a huge, phalluslike protuberance designed for spying on workers. The climax is at a conference in Australia, where Hank announces that the WTO will be dismantled. And no one questions it! The least-gullible group turns out to be a class of college students, who are outraged by the suggestion of recycling human waste as fast food.”The Yes Men” isn’t quite at the level of other recent sociopolitical documentaries. It’s short, and better editing would have made it shorter. But there is a hall-of-mirrors quality to how the Yes Men needle the WTO by mimicking it. And the bigger picture – that the folks who make the rules governing international trade can be so naive and unquestioning – is a little scary, a little comical and very bewildering.
“The Yes Men” shows Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 10-11, at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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