Known for their activist media hoaxes designed to draw attention to social issues of critical worldwide importance, the Yes Men turn their focus on the biggest problem facing every person on the planet: climate change. Inspired and recharged by the global movement that began with the Arab Spring and manifested in the US as Occupy Wall Street, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno take it to Shell and the International Conference on Climate Change. •Availability: Opens June 12, New York City at the IFC Center; June 19, Los Angeles before expanding nationally; premieres on VOD and across all digital platforms June 9. •Thanks to Sara Sampson, Sara Sampson PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: On my way over here, I was thinking about something you guys said in the movie: during Occupy Wall Street, people finally understood the connection between money, corporations, and the environment. It suddenly struck me that social movements are a little bit like science; you put two and two together, make a discovery, and then define your actions from there. Is that the way you guys work?
MB: When I think of science, I think of repeatable results. Your idea means something to me in the context of successful social movements. It’s like a way of looking at repeatable results…you get enough people involved, you get enough pressure on the right kind of government that can change or that can be changed… Actually, maybe it’s more like a recipe than science.
AB: I think you’re trying to say that when people get together in large numbers to make a change, they win. That’s a repeatable result. Anything good that we’ve got now comes from social movements.
DT: The five-day work week.
AB: The end of slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, the end of AIDS as a mortal disease. All these things came out of a lot of sacrifice and social movements. When people come together, they discover new things just by cross-pollinating, which I assume is the way science works. Shoot out an idea, and somebody else gets an idea, too.
DT: For The Yes Men Are Revolting, you guys filmed a number of Yes Men actions, like launching the Survivaballs at the UN. Laura, as codirector, what kind of contingency plans did you make in case shooting was interrupted?
LN: The thing I learned is that you can come up with as many contingency plans as you want, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to help. I’m a big one for contingency plans. The Yes Men don’t do that as often, so you just have to do a lot of strategic planning on how the thing might unfold, or what will happen if a reveal happens too quickly. Then you have to be prepared for everything to just go out the window and be superfast on your feet and think really quickly to get the key moments of the scene as they unfold. It’s the definition of best-laid plans going to waste.
DT: Aside from making this movie different from the first two Yes Men films, why was it important to include your personal stories in The Yes Men Are Revolting?
AB: For me it was important to show our evolution in the face of Occupy. To show where we get hope, we had to show us losing hope, and losing faith and giving up and wondering, What good is this action or that action? We wanted to show us getting frustrated in general and regaining hope when we saw a big movement. Some of the people in this movement said they were inspired by our movies, so we felt that what we do has a purpose. That was a big boost, and we wanted to convey that to audiences. If you’re part of something bigger, that’s where the change happens. It’s not in each action; it’s in the big picture, so never lose hope if your protest fizzles or your action doesn’t seem to achieve what it wants. That was the reason for me.
MB: I extend that to say that for this film we decided to be a little more straightforward and a little bit more honest with our viewers, and to show people a little more about who we are. I think that creates a more compelling film for most people. Because they feel they get to know us, they identify with our struggles, whether in the suspense of an action or the types of things that we go through that are similar to the things everyone goes through: How do I balance my work, my relationships, my family with my desire to create change in the face of what seems like immovable forces but in actually are not? These personal stories help tell the bigger story, which is how to create change.
DT: For me it also indicated that you guys are regular people. Folks lose sight of that and think you’re some sort of superheroes, but you’re not. You’re people just like everybody else, which means that everybody else has the capacity to do what you do, at least in theory.
LN: Exactly. I think the other two films even went for that superhero approach as a way of driving the story, but I think the fact that Andy and Mike struggle and sometimes fail is really key, because in the experience of doing activism, you feel like you’re failing. On any given day after you do an action or you’re at a protest, you don’t walk away thinking, Yay, we solved racism! You think, Oh God, did I accomplish anything? Over time things do shift, and that’s part of how social movements work, but you have to have this amazing faith to keep going. Rather than hide that and act like these guys never have those doubts, it felt really important to show them having doubts and wondering about their impact in the midst of doing an action.
DT: I think it was a really good choice. Andy and Mike, you’re both children of Holocaust survivors. Did your parents ever talk about the Holocaust, and if so, what effect did that have on you?
AB: My dad preferred not to talk about it, but eventually he did because I kept asking. I realized there was something important there, so I learned, especially as a teenager, what he had been through and what it meant. I think it’s basically a lesson that you can’t rely on established structures to bring good things. You can’t just take things on faith—anything. It’s about how important it is to question and fight, and to realize that where positive changes come from is not power structures; they’re just tools, which can be either great or terrible. Real change happens because of social movements. I think that’s the ultimate lesson.
MB: My mother was not a Holocaust survivor, but my father was. He talked about it a little bit, and my grandmother talked about it a little bit, but now my dad’s increasingly talking about it. Because he was relatively young during the Holocaust and most of the survivors are dead now, he tours around and gives speeches to schoolkids. That’s become his thing, since he’s one of the few who’s still alive. That was also another sort of creeping, unrecognized inspiration for including the personal stuff in the film; our parents are getting quite old, and there is definitely a lot of influence there in what we ended up doing, even though it was more intuitive, not really planned, not something I think about. Having a sense of justice—or a sense of injustice—is what came from it for me. Knowing from a very early age that there is injustice and having that told through the story of the Holocaust is what lay the framework for politicization.
DT: Has your role as social activists changed?
AB and MB: Yeah!
DT: OK. How?
AB: In the first movie, you see that it all happened by accident. We found ourselves with a platform to talk about the World Trade Organization and the rules that were established to enforce the rule of capital, so that’s what we did. We gave these talks and filmed them and wrote books and made our point as loudly as we could. Then at a certain point a friend from Greenpeace approached us and said, Why don’t you try to focus on the Bhopal catastrophe and what’s going on there; it’s a really concrete example of everything you’ve been saying about what’s wrong with letting capital decide for itself. That was the start of working with organizations and groups of activists like Greenpeace. After that we just never looked back and always worked with groups. At a certain point, we started doing workshops with grassroots activists and helping them come up with their own ideas. That was the Yes Labs, which we’ve morphed into an online version called the Action Switchboard. In July we’re starting to give an eight-week workshop course online. So that’s a big shift.
DT: The University of Hawaii just announced plans to divest from fossil fuels by 2018, like two hundred other academic institutions. Mike, in 2014 you gave the commencement speech at Reed College, during which you announced that you had convinced the board to divest, even though that was not the case. A number of students were upset when they found out your announcement was a hoax. Does that matter?
MB: It matters to them.
DT: Does it matter in terms of the work you’re doing? Could something like that backfire? Many of these students are activists themselves.
MB: Not really. The work we’re doing upsets people, but we’re not doing it to make friends. We’re not doing it to become popular. It’s our role to sometimes upset people by making them believe a lie for a moment. If the students at Reed were upset just because they felt their commencement was ruined, that’s a different thing from being upset that the school isn’t divesting. If they’re upset that the school isn’t divesting, then hopefully some of them are also motivated to do something about it. If they’re upset because their commencement was ruined, then I would ask, What’s the purpose of the ceremony?
I did meet a few parents who were upset, but oddly the thing they were upset about was what I said about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs famously delivered a speech at Stanford where he announced that people should do what they love. At Reed, I was saying that the era of doing what we love is over and that we have to work to make the change we need.
AB: It also fits into the cumulative thing. Some students might have been upset, but probably not permanently. If some of the things we do backfire a bit, it’s not the end of the world, either. A lot of other people are also doing things that backfire a little bit, but cumulatively it leads to something. After all, as you said, two hundred universities are divesting.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015