With 2002’s Bowling For Columbine, film-maker Michael Moore ushered in the age of the documentary as genuine big-screen entertainment. That, along with his subsequent docs, showcased his winning blend of determined approach, affable personality and easy-to-digest information. Armed with these attributes, he managed to both confront the big issues of the day and present the facts in a way that resonated with audiences and meant big bucks at the box office. Although Moore may no longer be the voice of the people he once was, there are plenty of film-makers following in his footsteps; Morgan ‘Supersize Me’ Spurlock is one documentarian who has followed the Moore formula for success, and now the unlikely figures of the Yes Men are set to ruffle some big business feathers and win over fans in the process.
The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, two seemingly ordinary guys who, dissatisfied at the way in which big business and big government are exerting their influence without consequence, have decided to take action. Determined to go one step further in their pursuit of truth, justice and democracy, they are not content with simply asking awkward questions, but put themselves in the eye of the storm by posing as spokespeople from the very companies they despise and then making wild statements in public forums.
Indeed, the first glimpse we have of the pair in action is when Andy goes in front of a TV audience of millions on BBC Worldwide, pretending to be a spokesman from Dow Chemicals. Not only that, he offers millions of dollars to the Indian victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which the Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded killing many people and affecting thousands to this day. His announcement knocked several million dollars off the share price of Dow, and caused huge media interest in both Bhopal and the Yes Men. Deciding to turn their attentions to the Bush administration, the duo then descend on New Orleans with promises of dramatic government-funded recovery after Hurricane Katrina…
On merely reading about the Yes Men’s exploits, it would be easy to think they are a couple of charlatans out for publicity at all costs, unthinking about what potential damage their wild claims may cause. Indeed, initially watching Andy’s promises of compensation to the Bhopal victims – a financial claim he has no authority to be making, and a humanitarian promise he cannot keep – makes for uncomfortable viewing. But the success of this documentary lies in the fact that Andy and Mike take great pains to follow up their stunts, whether it be travelling to Bhopal or coming clean to the victims of Katrina, in order to see what effect their efforts have on those people who really matter. And, somewhat surprisingly, everyone they speak to (on camera, at least) applauds their behaviour, thanking them for bringing forgotten pockets of human suffering back to the public consciousness.
Along the way, the Yes Men also interview various big business executives, whose often shocking views about the benefits of capitalism at all costs contrast sharply with images of those displaced by disasters that could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the greed of a few (yes, even Katrina). And the Yes Men’s appearances at various conventions with ridiculous products they claim will help advance the economy, including a computer programme that puts an actual monetary value on human life, really have to be seen to be believed.
It remains unclear, however, just how much impact the Yes Men will have on the corporations they target – that Dow’s stock price returned to normal levels just two years after their BBC stunt was uncovered proves there’s still a long way to go before individual action can really fix the world. But, as a means of drawing attention to issues that really do need to be firmly ingrained in the public consciousness, The Yes Men Change the World is an entertaining, amusing and deeply worthwhile documentary.
Stars, Directors & Screenplay Andy Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno
Running Time 1hr 27mins
Opens August 7
On Thursday August 11, there will be a special 20-cinema simultaneous screening across the UK complete with a Q&A with the Yes Men from The Showroom in Sheffield courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest, Dogwoof and Picturehouse Cinemas. For more information go to www.theyessmenfixtheworld.com