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Yes, They Can

October 29, 2009 By:
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Andy Bichlbaum (left) and Mike Bonanno

Hoaxes with the most-est?

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno know what it means to just say no; their drug of choice is playing plants: As the Yes Men -- iconoclastic irritants who stage false press conferences and media events, and attend conventions as ersatz executives -- they bring world attention to growing global capitalism through chaos and comedy.

False profits? Just last week, the two showed up as renegade reps of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, decrying the need for action against climate change as much more than an inconvenient truth. They were outed -- and put out when a real member of the organization dowsed the lights on their star-Chamber concert.

Sham on them?

Yes, say the Yes Men. Exactly.

They did an end-run on Enron; excoriated Exxon by taking over a meeting and "introducing" a biofuel composed, they said, of decomposed victims of climate change; took attendees to school at a Wharton School of Business conclave posing as World Trade Organization officials calling for "full private stewardry of labor"; and did in Dow Chemical by releasing an "official" statement telling the truth of the 1984 tragedy at Bhopal, focusing on the, uh, upside of the deaths by chemical poisoning.

Medium done: Newspapers and networks have fallen prey to their treif traps, running stories of their excellent misadventures, taken in by this Ted and Bill of the topsy-turvy.

We are the world -- and what a greedy, grifting, money-grubbing cesspool we are, say the duo. Who would disagree with such Yes Men? Hard to tell when you're laughing so hard.

Rock and roil -- and recoil at the world: Which brings up "The Yes Men Fix the World," receiving its regional premiere Nov. 5 as part of the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art (www.firstpersonarts.org), which kicks off Nov. 3 at the Painted Bride in Old City.

Local audiences won't be the first to be in on their bamboozling anal antics; these two are very funny flim-fame men, shifting and shafting the super rich enrobed in robbin' hoods.

But "The Yes Men Fix the World"? Tikkun olam of the con men?

The fix is in: Both men are Jewish. But if the world ain't broke, one wonders, why fix it?

"That's not necessarily true," says Bonanno. "At the moment, things are pretty bad."

Going for broke repairing the world? It's all part of what he and buddy Bichlbaum grew up with in Jewish homes and as scions/grandsons of Holocaust victims.

Tarnishing the Golden Rule 

"Your parents, when you're young, give you a sense of ethics, rules of behavior that, as you get older, you see other people, the rest of the world" disregarding and dissing, discovering that greed is not so much good as global, they explain.

In a way, the Yes Men, buds since the '90s, were home-schooled in social skills that would attest to their bromide-bashing banners now. "Andy and I grew up with a healthy disrespect for authority" and for what man has made of man. "Our grandfathers' dying in the Holocaust informed the way we were brought up."

Bring it on, they were advised.

And Bonanno got an early special lesson from his great-aunt, who was not thrilled when her nephew came home with a G.I. Joe doll.

"She had had enough of war during her lifetime," he recalls, and she gave that G.I. Joe the ultimate fix: She encouraged her nephew to replace the automated voice boxes of that doll with one of Barbie, giving the phrase "don't ask, don't tell" a telling new meaning.

It expanded Bonanno's ken of doing things outside the box, he recalls of the Barbie-G.I. Joe voicebox exchange.

Speaking for a new generation? So, just how did these two rabid revolutionaries -- Andy and Mike, not Joe and Barbie -- meet?

"A rabbi introduced us."

Talmud talking points: Up with people as they worked on behalf of the downtrodden, explains Bonanno.

"Too often," he adds, "what we see are large corporations who have no problem getting their voice heard and drown out oppressed people."

More akin to Michael Moore than not?

He has a much bigger base, "with many more fans than we have," says Bonanno humbly, and with more than a hint of admiration. "His films open on many more screens and have greater reach. His films have made a difference. He has turned the documentary into a successful venture."

They're not horning in on his megahorn mischief, just abetting it. Good bet there's no love lost either, as with Moore, in their relationship to capitalism.

Capitalizing on public fear and distrust of government and big corporations does take critical cash, however.

"It's been a long and hard process," bemoans Bonanno of fundraising for the film. "Somehow we made it," he says of the self-distributed documentary.

If the Yes Men can't take no for an answer, they can, on occasion, say no to others.

In one of their most controversial contretemps, they disassociated themselves from this past summer's Jerusalem Film Festival, pulling their flick "in solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign" against the Jewish state, addressing "friends of the festival" in an open letter published in a summer issue of Tikkun magazine.

"We feel a strong affinity with many people in Israel," they wrote, "as well as the trauma of the Holocaust," citing the deaths of their grandfathers, with a note that "Andy lived in Jerusalem for a year long ago."

"Today, there is a clear call for a boycott from Palestinian society. Obeying it is our only hope, as filmmakers and activists, of helping put pressure on the Israeli government to comply with international law."

Uh, Mike, having your falafel taste-tested these days?

"We don't blame the Israelis," and while alluding to some rulers as fascists may be fashionable, they won't go that far, he says in our interview.

What both he and Andy are doing, he insists, is faulting a "system that allows for the emphasis on evil behavior."

With that, Bonanno was off to "fix the world" -- even if it meant throwing a wrench into Israel's cultural scene.

But, wait, what he said wasn't exactly a popcorn moment, and his comments didn't exactly go down as easy as butter with one official familiar with the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Deborah Baer Mozes, director of cultural affairs, Israel consulate in Philadelphia, and long involved in Jewish arts, had a big no for Bonanno and Bichlbaum, saying, in part:

"By saying 'No!" to the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Yes Men were indeed being Yes Men -- playing into the hands of a very unjust and imbalanced viewpoint about how, as artists, they can make a positive impact on the discourse regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"If they were truly interested in learning and participating in the work of achieving peace, rather than joining a now-fashionable bandwagon, they would have gone to Israel and interacted with Israeli artists, many of whom are creating work together ...

"Their boycotting of Israel is tantamount to joining forces with those who delegitimize the very existence of Israel."

By responding, she continued, "to the 'clear call from the Palestinian civil society,' they are really referring not to those who wish to find a road to peace, but rather, those who wish to drive Israel into the sea."

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