You've developed an international reputation as pranksters, but pranksters with a purpose. Tell us how The Yes Men came together, and why you do the things you do.
Well, we started doing this shortly after the protests at the WTO conference in Seattle in November of '99, which shut that conference down. We couldn't go, so instead we set up a satirical website making fun of the World Trade Organization. It was a funny, fake website, and after we did it, we thought nothing more of it. But about two months later we were surprised to start receiving email intended for the WTO, and eventually invitations to conferences.
We went to the conference and delivered a completely crackpot lecture, and we thought the people in the audience would know that we were making fun of the WTO, and a discussion would ensue, but nothing happened. And we filmed it and that's how we started doing what we do. So in the sense that the website was fake, it was totally accidental how we got started.
What did you think after that first prank?
We were shocked to learn that audiences of seemingly sane people didn't respond negatively to the crazy ideas we suggested. We went to an international trade law conference in Salzburg, Austria and proposed, among other things, that they outlaw the siesta in Spain because it gets in the way of work. We suggested opening a free market democracy allowing companies to buy votes from the highest bidder over the Internet. And even though we pitched this to international trade lawyers, complete with a Power Point presentation that we thought was pretty graphic, they just sat there and nodded in agreement, simply because we were the most important people in the room and it fit within the basic philosophy about letting money and markets decide everything for us.
When we realized that people weren't going to react when we said things that shocking, we suddenly thought, Wow, maybe this is an interesting story that we need to pursue further. So we kept going and one thing led to another, and now we have another feature film of yet more shenanigans.
Have you seen any changes in public or corporate policy as a result of your stunts?
Well, there's a really big movement that has affected a lot of change, and we see ourselves as being a part of that movement. So when we pull a stunt - like going on the BBC as representatives of Dow to talk about the Bhopal chemical accident in India - that got a lot of press. There are hundreds of articles written in the U.S. press about Dow's responsibility for Bhopal. Contributing to this movement, it's about pressuring and trying to get Dow to do something. That action in itself isn't enough, just as any action in itself will seldom be enough to really create change. But put in combination with a whole lot of other people fighting for things, we'd like to think it helps.
What we found is that audiences want to do something. And we're hoping that that desire to do something translates into reality.
What happened after that prank?
We never heard back from Dow. They decided to not speak. We have never been prosecuted by any of these companies. And it's probably because we've always maintained the moral and ethical high ground. The corporations are doing things that are undeniably bad for people and the environment. And so it's hard for them to attack us and come off well in the court of public opinion. So we've begun to rely on that, and it's made us more brazen and bolder over the years.
What do you think about the state of investigative journalism today?
I think it's super critical to a functioning democracy. And it's a real shame that right now so many journalists are being put out of work. If we don't have an informed citizenry we can't hope to have representative democracy that works at all. And unfortunately, with so many media companies being owned by the same corporations and individuals, and now with journalism essentially becoming non-professionalized, with basically paid journalism being replaced by blogging and Twittering, things have really thinned out and our ability to get useful information is seriously hampered.
There are still the star investigative journalists out there who are doing great work and who are still paid for it. But there's only payroll for a few Seymour Hirsches. It's a lack of analysis of all kinds of political events in the world right now that I think is really hurting public knowledge. So we need more of it. It should be funded.
Where is your work headed? What can we expect to see next from The Yes Men?
Well, it's always hard to see where we're going and what we're gonna do. But right now, it seems like things are at a pretty desperate path. The effects of our consumer culture, or our unregulated free market system, if you prefer, have been pretty bad around the world. But now we're faced with a situation where it could very well mean the end of our civilization as we know it. So I think the time has come for really big change. So that's where I think we're interested in going, is trying to see how we can broaden our risk taking and help a lot of people take the sort of risks that are necessary to create change.
And there are a lot of concrete steps that we're taking to enroll people in this movement. People who see the film on HBO and want to do something should go to our BeyondTalk.net website which we're collaborating on with a bunch of other organizations, and sign up for our mailing list. People can say where they live, and we'll be able to contact them when there's something going down in their area. It's a data base that is meant to help motivate people to action when action is needed, which is now.
What have you learned from the people who've seen your films?
What we've found is that audiences want to do something. And we're hoping that that desire to do something translates into reality. And we're trying to facilitate that every way we can. Of course, people can also start their own organizations and act independently and try to do what's necessary to stop climate change, since that's the issue that sort of trumps all others right now. That's what we're asking, and that's what we're hoping for.
2009 Documentary Films Series