Director: Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno
There’s a moment around the middle of The Yes Men are Revolting, where one of the two main organisers of the activist group questions whether there is any point in continuing. A satirical action aimed at influencing the Copenhagen climate talks has failed to make any meaningful impact, and the meetings end with no agreement on emmissions reduction.
The question of why The Yes Men perform their stunts, where they dress as representatives of governments, lobby groups, oil companies and host faux press conferences, is an existential thread which runs through the entire film.
It is a question that is never satisfactorally answered.
Like an activist answer to James Bond, the documentary proceeds through a series of action sequences in disparate locations that are tied together only by the titular characters. The tone of the documentary is both knowingly self-referential, and self-indulgent. In lulls between stunts, there is much dwelling on the relationship between Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, and how their real lives spill over into the existence of their aliases Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno.
Cameras are everywhere, and no matter how implausable their assumed identities, the audiences are always shown as gullible, taken in by the suits and powerpoint presentations. The sequences however come across as heavily and selectively edited, which damages the credibility of the project. Unconvincing and lacking punch, the sense is less anarchic improvisational satire, and more amateur theatre.
The film seems to unwittingly stumble across an uncomfortable answer – that the activism is largely for personal satisfaction. They have Done Something. Success is measured in media mentions. The inadequacy of this outcome is awknowledged by the filmmakers, but never truly addressed.
It’s the third documentary outing from The Yes Men, and feels like an exercise in brand protection, in a way that their first did not. Shoehorned into the final scenes are a series of uplifting platitudes about being part of a wider movement, followed by a plug for an activism crowdsourcing website over the closing credits.
It may be an unfair criticism to make. The film is not, after all, named after the issues being covered, it is named after the group themselves. It’s essentially a showreel of different protests they have worked on, interspersed with brief cartoon montages that elucidate on the various issues at hand.
The arguments behind the campaign of the film - to promote large scale adoption of renewable energy and cuts to emmissions - are undeniably solid. When the film is at its best, this message comes through from the images of flood devastated villages of Uganda, or the hellish tar sand extraction fields in Canada, and the stories of the people who have no choice but to live there.
Unfortunately, most of the film does not work. With an overuse of the personal stories of the two main characters, the documentary devolves into a meta mess. Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos wonder aloud why they bother continuing with The Yes Men as a project. On the evidence of this film, it becomes hard to disagree.
The Yes Men are Revolting is showing at the Documentary Edge Festival.