‘The Yes Men Are Revolting’ pulls back the curtain on the mischievous activist duo

    In their third feature film, The Yes Men offer a window into their inner lives, warts and all.
    In 2009, The Yes Men distributed a million copies of a "special edition" New York Post that "tells the truth about climate change." (The Yes Men Are Revolting)
    In 2009, The Yes Men distributed a million copies of a “special edition” New York Post that “tells the truth about climate change.” (The Yes Men Are Revolting)

    In the fall of 2009, I landed a job in film with a rather serious sounding title, Director of Grassroots Outreach and Engagement, for “The Yes Men Fix the World,” a documentary directed by the eponymous activist artist collective. While some of the work involved what you’d expect — coordinating festival outreach, sending out screeners, and booking community groups to fill seats on opening weekend — more often than not the work took a turn for the, well, unconventional.

    There was that time that I helped coordinate a weird, wobbly army of SurvivaBalls on a mission to “swarm” the United Nations by way of the East River and warn the assembled world leaders about the dire consequences of inaction on climate change. For the uninitiated, the SurvivaBall is an all-weather survival suit designed to ward off the ravages of extreme weather, ostensibly developed by engineers at Haliburton (and debuted in that last film). These sturdy examples of custom made “couture for climate calamity” come with a price tag that only bankers and CEOs can afford.

    That afternoon ended badly for the SurvivaBalls: Coast Guard and New York Police Department boats swooped down on the ragtag army, and one of the Yes Men ended up in handcuffs. Six years later, the scene feels eerily, sadly familiar; scientists and activists are ringing even more urgent alarm bells about our climate system run amok, and governments are gearing up for a major U.N. summit to address the issue (or not), this time in Paris.

    All this feels like a pretty good moment for some comic relief. Enter the Yes Men’s new film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” which premieres in New York City on June 12 and on iTunes, Vimeo and On Demand beginning June 9. It opens with that vision of marauding SurvivaBalls and, incredibly, ends with a room full of energy contractors dancing to the beat of a renewable energy revolution. It’s a fun festival of the absurd, with a lot of heart.

    Personified most visibly by co-founders Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos (née Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, their nom de guerres), The Yes Men have been busy in the intervening years, a period of growth and transformation that the film does a good job of tracking. I’ve had a front row seat to some of this, as a friend, colleague and eventual board member of The Yes Lab — an organization we started in 201o to expand the circle of people and groups looking to use more provocative Yes-Men style tactics in their work. The Yes Lab offered training and consultation that has resulted in some truly hilarious (and headline grabbing) actions — like when Peabody Coal sought to comfort children suffering from asthma with their new line of designer “Puff Puff” inhalers. There’s also that time McDonald’s teamed up with the NYPD to offer free Happy Meals to anybody who’d been stopped and frisked three times without charge. Or, who could forget when Shell Oil bungled it’s roll out of the fictitious (but hilarious) “Let’s go!” Arctic drilling campaign, a gonzo collaboration with Greenpeace that gets airtime in the new film. It’s interesting to note that these actions and the launch of the Yes Lab followed Servin’s near nervous breakdown, after a long and grueling film roll out that involved, amongst other things, getting sued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    While that particular freak out wasn’t caught on camera, it feels as though it could have been because “The Yes Men Are Revolting” is their first film to really pull back the curtain and dig into the emotional and personal toll of pulling off the kind of relentless, high-stress escapades these guys have made their professional hallmark. In the previous films, and in a lot of the mystique that has surrounded them in the press over the years, they’ve come off more as cartoons — goofy Teflon activists impermeable to attack from corporate titans or the media.

    Not so here. In this film, they both go through break-ups, their own friendship gets tested, some stunts totally flop, and they spend a considerable amount of time asking themselves, “What the hell are we even doing here?” Servin describes his regular existential let downs after every stunt thusly: “Whenever we would do actions I would always think, this is the thing that’s going to change everything … And then afterward there would be this huge depression, like damn, this didn’t change anything.”

    To that point, some of the most harrowing scenes in the “The Yes Men Are Revolting” don’t involve corporations, powerful governments or the media getting duped. One scene follows the two at a party in Uganda, where they’ve traveled to meet and scheme with a group of climate activists. One night, as they’re having drinks, Servin makes an impromptu confession to his Ugandan colleagues: He’s gay. These days, that generally isn’t a conversation stopper, but at the time, the Ugandan Parliament was debating a controversial law to sentence gays and lesbians to death. Talk about an awkward silence.

    This being a movie about The Yes Men, the scene still ends with everybody busting out laughing, as Servin uses two beer bottles to demonstrate the ins and outs of man-on-man sex for the Ugandans. And it’s these regular, quirky personal insights into who these guys are, individually and as a pair, that makes this film more compelling and more grown up than 2003’s “The Yes Men” and 2009’s “The Yes Men Fix the World.” This window into their inner lives, warts and all, makes it a better movie, and it makes the nuts and bolts of the fascinating work they do more visible and replicable, which is exactly what The Yes Men are hoping to do this time around: Inspire as many others as possible to take risks, and be creative while doing it, in the fight to save the planet from corporate baddies and climate calamity. To that end, the film launch coincides with a roll out of a new platform called the Action Switchboard, meant to connect schemers across the country and the world with a way to propose a project, build a community of support around it, and make a run at changing the world.

    If this film roll out is anything like the last one, I suspect it will generate a whole new round of (hilarious) headlines itself, and offending corporations with offices close to any theaters showing the flick may want to beef up on security. I’ve known both of these guys for years now, and I think one of the most important lessons I’ve absorbed from watching (and participating) in some of their hijinks up close, is that if you want to change the world, you’d better have fun while you’re doing it. Hilarity and joy can be some of the best fuel for that work. And their new film, while striking some more somber and reflective notes at times, is quite a joy to watch.

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