Much has been written (including by me, ahem) about the evolution of the documentary form, and the ways that films increasingly blur the lines between doc and fiction, “reality” and, uh, “alternate reality.” We all know that every film is subjective, that the truth is relative (relatively speaking). Tellingly, of the films mixing staged and captured footage, the ones that are getting the most attention are political exposés — films in which the artists are exposing the lies and wrong-doings of politicians and corporations, films that don’t claim to be objective, instead offering a clear opinion of what the filmmakers think is right and wrong.
In the modern world, wealth, power and information are complex and convoluted. Where in days past everyone knew the king was rich and controlling, today the king is a faceless corporation with multinational diversified assets, connections in government, and a suave media department. Simple facts are often futile when thrown in the face of such a ruling class. Thus, in a postmodern world, the oppressed (or those savvy mediamakers representing them) must attack in a guerrilla style befitting of this asymmetric war, waging cleverly insidious, multifaceted campaigns that don’t require a fight of inaccessible, deliberately-obscured facts. The Yes Men Fix the World marches in line with the recent tradition of documentary stunts by Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me; Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?), Michael Moore (Sicko; Fahrenheit 9/11; Bowling for Columbine, etc.) and Sparrow (shameless Rooftop plug). Such films insert semi-fictional characters into “real” situations where they can catch power-brokers with their defenses down, rendering their spin-machine armory of “facts” futile. This type of activism is more about raising awareness than revealing information. The point and justification of this filmmaking mode being that while movies are subjective and truth is relative, justice is objective, morals imperative.
The Yes Men’s main modus operandi is to impersonate spokesmen from major corporations and make idealistic and generous promises these major corporations would never make. Their secretive stunts have been surprisingly well documented, particularly in this energetic and inspiring film, so I won’t go into them in too much detail. But there are a couple I’d like to point out particularly in regards to this form of filmmaking activism and the critics who question its effectiveness and morality.
In one action, Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men appeared on a BBC news show posing as a spokesman for Dow Chemicals (the world’s 34th wealthiest corporation; bigger than Microsoft), and, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal plant disaster, http://www.bhopal.org announced that Dow was offering $12 billion in reparations to the families of the 8,000 dead and 15,000 permanently injured. News of this radically generous donation spread to investors— causing Dow’s stock to lose $2 billion in value in 23 minutes — and to the concerned citizens of Bhopal. It’s unfortunate, The Yes Men pointed out, that as children we’re taught that we’ll be rewarded for kind acts, but when Dow acted kindly, they were mercilessly spanked by their investors. When it was revealed that Dow was doing no such beneficence, The Yes Men claimed the public statement was not a lie, per se, “It’s what Dow should do.”
Bichlbaum addressed the moral relativism of this stunt by pointing out that it seems unfair to value the investor’s monetary loss over the loss of health and life for thousands. Potentially more troubling, however, is the emotional turmoil foisted on the Bhopal victims, who temporarily might have believed they were finally on the winning side of justice. To address that concern, The Yes Men traveled to Bhopal, where the head of a local victims’ support organization and a crusading journalist were both tremendously grateful for the attention their cause had finally received. “I always expected to remain in hell,” the journalist said, in regards to the suffering Bhopal caused. “For you to bring me to heaven, if only for an hour, I thank you.”
Similar actions on behalf of other causes reveal similar results — an angry corporation in denial, an unimaginative media that accuses The Yes Men of malicious mendacity, and victims who happily celebrate the hope and attention brought to them. “It takes a stunt like this to get you guys [media, politicians] to pay attention to us,” says one woman who lost her home in New Orleans not to Katrina but to HUD Developers. “If that’s a hoax, it’s excellent!”
The Yes Men Fix the World is a documentary and a hoax, and it too is excellent. Visit Bhopal.org to help provide much-needed medical help to the people of Bhopal.
* All quotations are approximate, in keeping with the spirit of relative truth.
– Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Founder & Artistic Director, Rooftop Films
Related posts: Read all of Mark’s Sundance coverage here.