• October 3, 2004
{mosimage}The telling moment in The Yes Men comes at the three-quarter mark when intrepid pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno engage in a wistful meditation on satire.
The movie follows the pair as they engage in two years worth of large-scale, low-budget satire. Bonanno and Bichlbaum are part of the anti-globalization movement that gave us riots in the streets of Seattle, Quebec and Geneva and endless fodder for handwringing newspaper columns. The duo of youngish media artists, however, are more elegant and sophisticated protesters than the people in black balaclavas heaving tear gas canisters back at police and smashing windows in Starbucks.

The Yes Men started out with a web site which could be mistaken for the World Trade Organization's official site. The fake site (www.gatt.org) looks just like the real site (www.wto.org), but its text is a wicked parody of the neoliberal economics blather associated with the WTO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - a maddening species of nonsense which has stirred outrage around the world.

Astoundingly, a number of people have mistaken the fake site for the real thing. This led to requests to Bonanno and Bichlbaum to send WTO experts to trade-related international conferences, and speak for the WTO in televised debates. After Bichlbaum and Bonanno get over their surprise, they accepted the invitations.

{amazon id='B0006N2DSI' align='right'}Their first triumph comes on CNBC's Marketwrap Europe, where Bichlbaum presented himself as a WTO spokesman debating an antiglobalization author. He argues that the WTO is right because the WTO represents the rich and powerful and the rich and powerful are bound to win in the end.

Despite the absurd might-equals-right argument, the whole thing goes off without anyone noticing Bichlbaum is spouting nonsense.

At dull conferences Bichlbaum livens things up with PowerPoint presentations on the relative economic merits of slavery versus sweatshops in the free trade zones of developing countries, concluding that slavery is too inefficient and expensive compared to maquiladora workers. There is also a sober lecture about the economic inefficiency inherent in a variety of cultures, thus the WTO's goal of homogenizing cultures around the world.

The Yes Men's most spectacular stunt is pulled off at a conference about trade in textiles in Finland. The sober Finns look on in puzzlement as Bichlbaum demonstrates the management leisure suit, a garment which allows managers to remain in constant communication with workers through implants in the seats of their pants and a giant inflatable phallus with a TV screen in tip.

Some of this is funny, some interesting, and some just as dull as a trade conference should be.

The telling moment comes when the pair are preparing a speech for an Australian agribusiness conference at which they plan to announce the WTO is disbanding and reconstituting itself in response to its critics. They will tell the agriculture and trade experts that the protesters are right, and the new WTO will be based on the United Nations charter of rights and will dedicate itself to lifting people out of poverty.

This leads to the wistful observation from Bonanno that straight satire is more fun. Here they plan to actually present a plan of action, an alternative to the WTO - which is not so much fun.

That's the problem with the film. Spoofing the WTO is good fun. But it doesn't do anything to advance the debate. The real WTO is not allowed onto the film. The only serious interviews are with antiglobalizers such as Michael Moore (he of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 fame) who agree with Bonanno and Bichlbaum. The audience has to accept The Yes Men's portrayal of the WTO.

This contrasts with Moore's basic technique. Moore does his darndest to get the people he criticizes on film, speaking for themselves. Moore doesn't make them say stupid things, they just do.

By putting words in the WTO's mouth, The Yes Men find it easy to confirm the cartoon characterization of international bureaucrats. Most of the audience will laugh and nod their heads, but few will be able to claim they came away from the film with a new insight.

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