London’s HRWFF: The Yes Men Are Revolting

The Yes Men are Revolting opened the London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival last night – the third feature outing for activists Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who have forged a career of elaborate stunts targeted squarely at corporate behemoths, perhaps most famously posing as Dow executives pledging to make reparations to Bhopal victims. This time around, the pair engage with a wide range of other activists in taking on bigwigs ranging from the U.S Chamber of Commerce to leaders attending the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Along the way they join thousands of other activists during the Occupy movement and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Twenty years into their career, Andy and Mike are clearly older and wiser and a bit world weary. The Yes Men are Revolting for the first time focuses on them as human beings with families, boyfriends and plenty of lashings of modern stress. Appropriately enough, the film shows the frustrations and tensions which inevitably emerge when trying to save the world, one hoax at a time.

At a post screening Q&A with co-director Laura Nix, here’s what the three film-makers had to say about activism, and their latest cinematic outing:

Laura Nix: (Mike and Andy) are always doing actions – there is always a ton of stuff going on. So it’s a question of how does any particular action serve the narrative of the film? And this film is more complicated than the others because it involves them as humans. In the other two films they were like cardboard cut-out characters, like cartoons, and this time they were real people.  And I felt that was really important because I’ve known them a long time and I am very impressed at what it takes to do this work for decades. It’s one thing to get involved in activism when you are in your twenties, and it’s another thing when you are starting to hit the other ages that we are all facing!

Laura Nix
Laura Nix

Mike Bonanno (on dodging a law suit threat): One of the things that we’ve come to realise from years of doing this is that we’re not in any danger physically or legally for what we’re doing. Everything we’re doing as far as we can tell is totally legal and totally safe. We have some people to thank who have fought against companies like McDonald’s, for example – the McLibel case here in the UK – which has made a lot of corporations scared to threaten activists legally.

Mike Bonnano (left), Andy Bichlbaum (right) (1)
Mike Bonanno (left), Andy Bichlbaum (right)

Andy Bichlbaum: For me the personal story is really important as a way of showing the importance of social movements. We despair, we wonder why we are doing things? What did this achieve?  And we get the answer with Occupy, when we realise that we’ve been part of this and it’s exploding and it’s huge. That’s a lesson that activists often don’t realise – if you do something with your heart really in it, it matters. Even if you might not see how – it might take a long time for you to see how it works.

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The Human Rights Watch Festival runs until March 27. Stay tuned for a future blog about the rapidly growing subgenre of activism on film…

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