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The Yes Men

"The Yes Men" follows pranksters posing as WTO officials at dead-serious economic conferences, where, despite of their outrageousness, few industry or government reps seem to realize it's all a joke. Chris Smith has assembled a rough-hewn but sometimes very funny sort of performance diary. Theatrical prospects will be limited.

Cast:
With: Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonnano.

An amusing footnote in the annals of anti-World Trade Organization activism, “The Yes Men” follows pranksters posing as WTO officials at various dead-serious economic conferences, where, despite of their outrageousness, few industry or government reps seem to realize it’s all a joke. With his producer Sarah Price and production assistant Dan Ollman stepping up to co-helmer status, documentarian Chris Smith has assembled a rough-hewn but sometimes very funny sort of performance diary. Still, subjects are so camera-ready that pic verges on self-promotional effort, far from the curiously endearing real-life eccentrics in the filmmakers'”American Movie” and “Home Movie.” Theatrical prospects will be limited.

Though their Web site defines the Yes Men as a “genderless, loose-knit association of some 300 impostors worldwide,” pic only shows prime instigators Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano (who looks eerily like “Saturday Night Live’s” Jimmy Fallon), their stunts occasionally supported by input from a costume designer, computer animator, and other volunteers.

During the ’99 Presidential campaign, the two Yes Men created a site parodying the WTO’s hardball globalization tactics. To their amazement, many Web visitors didn’t bother scrutinizing the content, accepting it as an official WTO conduit — to the point of inviting “spokespersons” to attend trade-oriented confabs in the U.S. and abroad.

Duo gleefully accepted, sure their ruse would be found out at any moment. Pic follows them to a lawyers’ confab in Salzberg, where they advocate auctioning off public election votes to the highest bidder. Whether too dignified or polite to express outrage — or perhaps, more disturbingly, not even surprised by this quasi-fascist proposal — the attendees remain pokerfaced.

Duo thus ups satirical ante further at a “Textiles of the Future” conference in Finland. There, Andy as guest lecturer “Hank Hardy Unruh” defends slavery as a useful system too hastily discarded, denigrates Gandhi’s legacy, then unveils the next step in executive multi-tasking — a superhero-like “Management Leisure Suit” that allows video surveillance of workers via a TV monitor jutting from the waist like a huge, engorged penis. This does get laughs from witnesses, yet even then the resulting media coverage doesn’t “expose” the Yes Men as outright frauds.

Outer limits of institutional gullibility are explored again as the Men use a subsequent speaking engagement in Sydney to make an announcement. They claim the WTO has come to terms with its own negative effects on local biospheres/economies/populations, and is hence disbanding, effective immediately. A bit stunned but not at all wary, legit attendees interviewed by press call this “a very brave decision,” an enthusiasm they surely regretted voicing the morning after. This “breaking news” spreads so fast and wide that it is discussed in the Canadian Parliament. Regrettably, official responses to the hoax revelation go unrecorded.

There’s some hilarity in seeing these schemes pulled off to an extent that makes WTO allies look very foolish, or worse. But at the same time, there’s a certain collegiate comedy skit self-satisfaction to the Yes Men’s antics that pic does little to offset. Whether protags network with other activist orgs to any meaningful degree is unclear. Do they have regular jobs? Scenes wherein they shop for thrift store “executive” drag or hang out in hotel rooms pad slim run-time unnecessarily. Lacking outside commentators that might broaden its human and political scope, “The Yes Men” sometimes feels like an extended pilot for a smarty-pants broadcast series in the tradition of Michael Moore’s “Awful Truth” and “TV Nation” skeins.

Vid-shot effort is technically bare-bones, but acceptable within verite context.

The Yes Men

Production: A Bluemark Prods. presentation of a Yes Men Films production. Produced, directed by Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, Sarah Price.

Crew: Camera (color, HD-cam), Smith, Ollman, Price; editor, Ollman; sound, Smith, Ollman, Price. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 9, 2003. Running time: 80 MIN.

With: With: Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonnano.

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