There is something distinctly uncomfortable about watching corporate impersonators Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) wear cheap suits and lie to people on camera. Equal parts thrilling, confrontational and absurd, their signature pranks force the powerful to either play along with them or reveal remarkably unflattering realities. (Both, if you're lucky).
With more than 20 years working together, they've posed as Halliburton, Dow Chemical, Exxon, Chevron and the World Trade Organization. And through collaborations in their latest film -- The Yes Men Are Revolting, which plays at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on May 6 -- the pranksters add Shell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Harper Government to that list.
Ask Bonanno what's changed since he and Bichlbaum started spoofing, and you'll get an absurd and confrontational answer: ''We've grown hairier and older, and definitely less human than we started. Next question?''
Luckily, I've also got Vancouver comedian, activist and Yes Men collaborator Sean Devlin on the line to sympathize with my discomfort. ''It's definitely uncomfortable,'' Devlin says. ''If there's a confrontational aspect there's often controversy, and you have to be prepared to deal with the criticism that ensues.''
Devlin is known for Canadian political pranks under the banner ShitHarperDid.com. Among other things, the group skewers expensive government ads with the clever domain name EconomicActionPlan.ca. He first met Bonanno during a DOXA festival Q&A in 2009 after a screening of the Yes Men's sophomore film The Yes Men Fix the World. Two years later, Devlin moved from Vancouver to New York City to work closely with Bichlbaum and Bonanno on their next climate-focused movie.
Together, they've drawn attention to Arctic drilling and Canada's climate record armed with cardboard, tubas, ice sculptures, wigs, business cards, phone cameras, many fake websites and a two-person polar bear costume. For anyone who may want to cause similar political mayhem ahead of Canada's federal election, The Tyee asked Devlin and Bonanno to break down the anatomy of a prank. (Yes, they encourage voters to try this stuff at home.)
Lesson 1: Embrace your enemy
When Devlin and the Yes Men faked a Shell celebration at Seattle's Space Needle, the action's believability stemmed from understanding and caricaturing the company's stated position on Arctic drilling. In short: ''Let's go.''
''It's fun to put on that evil hat and pretend to be Shell,'' says Devlin. The team's brainstorming inspired, ''We're pumped!'' muscle shirts, elaborate ice sculptures, and the rig-shaped soda dispenser that caused a spill-y PR mess.
This classic Yes Men tactic is called ''identity correction'': by making a bold-but-plausible statement on an important political issue dressed as a powerful entity, you force that entity to publicly address their real position.
''In some ways the authentic work we do is so complicated and challenging -- there's so much complexity -- whereas putting on the shoes of Shell or another multinational company, the motivating factor is usually just greed," says Devlin. ''It's kind of fun to play; as a character, it's really simple.''
Lesson 2: Design a 'decision dilemma'
A confrontational prank forces an opponent to respond, Devlin explains, but that response should play into a trickster's narrative. ''If you're crafting your actions as decision dilemmas, no matter how [your target] reacts, it's a win-win situation.''
Devlin deployed this trick following the recent fuel spill in English Bay, confronting Industry Minister James Moore and North Vancouver MP Andrew Saxton at a press conference in Port Moody, B.C. He and fellow activists invited the pair to touch oil-stained rocks and debris plucked from Vancouver's beaches.
The politicians chose refusal over oily fingers -- but neither was a good look. Moore would either be seen with literal dirt on his hands, or admit local beaches may be unsafe to visit.
Lesson 3: Keep saying 'yes, and…'
''One thing I learned from Mike and Andy is that when you're sneaking around in a space where you're not supposed to be, the best thing is to act like you're supposed to be there,'' Devlin says. ''Taking on that confidence goes a long way.''
You can see this pro-skill in action throughout The Yes Men Are Revolting, as fuming journalists and execs have their questions answered with more questions. ''By being agreeable, you're often able to stay in the space a lot longer,'' Devlin says.
Of course, it helps to have comedy and theatre training. ''The longstanding rule of improvisation is to say 'yes… and,' '' he adds. 'You build on an idea instead of rejecting.''
Lesson 4: Fail, then fail again
Unlike past Yes Men installments, The Yes Men Are Revolting gets under the skin of Bichlbaum and Bonanno. Co-director Laura Nix goes beyond the activist hero archetype, exploring the duo's personal limits, legal challenges and burnout experiences. More than ever before, we see them fail.
But those failures have informed new evolutions in pranking. In fact, the Yes Men's ''meme generator'' tool was first tested in a far less popular Chevron action before it drew big headlines for pairing images of baby animals with slogans like ''You can't run your SUV on cute.'' Mimicking Shell's own web presence, the ArcticReady.com generator allowed thousands of people on social media to share their own skeptical snark beside Shell's branding.
Western media's increasingly hoax-savvy sensibilities have also pushed the filmmakers to prank internationally. ''We've been finding that journalists in countries other than Canada and the U.S. are less familiar with the tactics, so some projects have continued to be successful,'' Devlin says.
In 20 years of saying yes, and failing frequently, Bonanno says he's only grown bolder. ''Do crazier shit and don't be afraid -- the risks are all phantom,'' he says. ''We're brought up believing there's all these risks, but at least within the U.S. and Canada those are really limited.''
Devlin cautions some activists bear more risk than others. ''It also depends on your privilege, race and class location, or if you're part of a big organization -- that also provides a lot of safety.''
Lesson 5: Amplify unheard voices
In recent years, the Yes Men have expanded their circle of pranksters to address the privilege issues Devlin raises. Bonanno and Bichlbaum also started the Yes Lab, a space that facilitates creative action workshops for social justice organizations.
''Increasingly, we're finding ways to develop actions that are more participatory, that let people in on the joke and build on the joke,'' says Devlin. ''The Shell ad generator is a really strong example of that.''
This coming election, Devlin hopes to see activist mischief that highlights the experiences of people whose voices tend to be left out of partisan debates.
''In my opinion, that's indigenous communities, migrant communities, issues affecting young people,'' he says. ''I would love to see actions leading up to the election to help lift off those voices.''
Lesson 6: Reflect and record success
In the midst of a campaign or action, it's often tough to see the big picture. In fact, Bonanno says it can take as many as five years to notice progress. The Yes Men started in the anti-globalization movement, and it was success that pushed them onto a new agenda.
''We learned the things we do make a difference, but it takes years to find out it's part of a movement that's working,'' he says.
With an eye on the election, Bonanno sees Canada's energy industry as the biggest battle to win. ''The oil industry is destroying itself to a certain degree, but that doesn't mean we can let up.''
The Yes Men Are Revolting plays at Vancouver's DOXA Documentary Film Festival on May 6 at 7:30 p.m. Must be 18+. Details here.
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