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The Yes Men fix the world. We ask what keeps them going?

yesmenAs the Yes Men - the thinking-person's Sacha Baron Cohen - see their latest film released in the UK, Netribution sneaks its way into a secretive underground political cell known only as 'Soho House' to find them out and learn more.

The Independent's Johann Hari recently asked the question: "when you are just one person sitting on a warming planet – when you see economies collapsing, wars raging, and reasons for fear on every corner – how should you react? What can you do?". Many of us, he argued, settle for defiant pessimism: "I can't make any difference. It's all going to happen, whatever I do. The political conversation.. has nothing to do with me anyway", leading us to buy a bigger lock for our door, distrust our neighbours and not go out much, other than to occasionally let rip and collapse in a drunken mess on Latvian stag weekends.

I was fortunate enough to put the question to the Yes Men - who seem to have taken the crown of accessible yet uncompromising political satire - when I met them in London a few weeks ago ahead of the release of the pant-shittingly hilarious The Yes Men Fix the World - winner of the Audience award at Berlin, and 'best documentary of the year' according to the New Scientist. Andy Bichlbaum explained that they simply "do things that are fun". Pessimism is avoided, he said, "if you do what you are drawn to and think it can have a positive effect, if you do want you want to do and it's enjoyable. The despair comes from not doing anything and just sitting there and letting things happen."

Indeed it was frustration with the status quo which led them into Yes-ing the first place: "I started it more or less when I was in college and there was a certain frustration." says Andy. "It could seem pointless to be in a march, while [this was] something that could give me more satisfaction, that we had more fun doing."

newyorktimes_specialStill not funded to prank all year round (wot no Channel 4 series?), the pair hold down day jobs as University lecturers while jetting around the world pretending to be people that they aren't. Few by now will have missed the infamous stunt where Bichlbaum was invited on to BBC News 24 as a representative of Dow Chemical, and proceded to do the one thing the owner of the chemical plant behind the disaster which has killed an estimated 25,000 people and disabled many more has never done - and apologise unreservedly for the disaster, promising to shut the plant and pay out some $12bn in compensation and clean-up (25 years on, the ground water there is still is toxic, and litigation continues). Dow's stock price collapsed by some $2bn before the stunt was revealed.

The Yes Men Fix the World, after a slightly awkward start, gallops into one of the funniest documentaries I've seen in years that had me both in tears, as the pair visited Bhopal today; and stitches, as executives at a VIP annual petrochemical luncheon learn that the candles they are holding are made from the flesh of an Exxon janitor, as part of a cunning plan to recycle climate chaos casualties into a fuel source. The film takes us behind the scenes of the pair's thinking, planning and stunts - with few areas avoiding their attention. We see them share a stage with Mayor Nagin in New Orleans where post-disaster relief has become mass-privatisation, with only four state schools left in the entire city; uncover Halliburton's executive protection survival suit; and - in one of their most touching stunts - handed out 80,000 alternative 'good news' copies of the New York Times, declaring peace in Iraq, a restructure of the economy and a new maximum wage law (PDF). With more stunts planned in the run up to Copenhagen, the men don't seem to sleep - indeed for the film's release in the UK, the pair handed out beautifully branded B'EauPal water in Soho, and at the Dow offices:

yesmen1What seems remarkable - besides their  ability to get away with these things - is the balance between focusing on local issues and the bigger picture, which is summed up by Andy as the point that "we've entrusted our destiny to this crazy ideology [consumerism] that has now gone bankrupt and it's obvious it's gone bankrupt. But we really need to sever our ties with it." It's a message no longer exclusive to radicals and the far left - taking centre stage from Franny Armstrong's Age of Stupid to Douglas Rushkoff's Life Inc to Annie Leonards' brilliantly concise and informative 20-minute Creative Commons short The Story of Stuff (which taught me that every bin bag of rubbish in my house is matched with 70 bags of rubbish created in the production of that waste - and that 99% of goods Americans buy will be binned within six months). In short, as Leonard says, "you cannot run a linear system (of production and consumption) on a finite planet indefinitely". Even Disney seems to agree, with Wall*E and its accompanying website, being perhaps the most grimly disturbing illustration out of any of them of the consequences of business as usual, of a society built first and foremost around consumerism, greed and short term, unsustainable thinking.

So, are these guys the answer? Heroic cultural leaders such as Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, Banksy and Kalle Lasn, Armstrong and Rushkoff, Mark Thomas and Michael Moore, Colbert and Stewart - sticking the finger up to Goliath as they press for the change we want but don't know how to get, while cracking some good jokes?

Actually, this is the second bad response to the problems of the world Hari identified in his article, giving our leaders and cultural figures sole responsibility for change, investing in them superhuman expectations to make up for the rot that we all see and sigh for, while letting us once more sit back and put our feet up, trusting that Obama or the Yes Men will sort it out. It's just as dangerous as apathy:

"Both these moods leave you – the ordinary citizen – inert. All you can do is focus on your own personal life and wait, for disaster or salvation. But these twin dispositions leave out the real option that is waiting for you. It is the only one that has ever delivered political change in the past, and it is the only one that will pull us out of the ditch now. It is where ordinary individual citizens – you – come together and raise their voices and offer solutions of their own."

yesmen3This echoes the Yes Men's message, as Mike explains: "it's only by individual action that things change. There's not driving a car, that kind of thing, then there's also putting pressure on corporations and the government to change. Specifically putting pressure on our elected leaders to make sure that they have the mandate to pass the laws that we hope to see at Copenhagen. There's tons of organisations here that are doing it, from the more radical ones like Plane Stupid, to groups like Friends of the Earth."

And if they wanted to follow in the Yes Men's shoes, any advice? "It's not very hard, that's what I'd say to begin with. It's not rocket science" explained Andy. "You can watch our movie, figure out how we do it and go and do it. It's one technique amongst many for getting the message out there. And for supporting a big movement that's making change."

To help this further, the Yes Men have created a website that both explains how they do it, gives ideas, and encourages groups to mobilise around specific issues. At you can sign up to stunts - from a campaign against the targetted recruitment of ethnic minorities and the ultra-poor for the military, to the Raging Grannies Action League for US health care reform.

Johann Hari argues it's actions such as these that move civilisation forward, and that as a species we depend on such movements:

"Far from being some dreamy call to kumbaya, collective political action is the single biggest reason your life is incalculably better than that of your great-grandparents. When people first called for equality for women, when people first started to conduct scientific experiments, when people first suggested paid weekends and holidays for ordinary workers, they were greeted by the same glib pessimism we hear today. It'll never happen! What can we do?...

Who was the leader of feminism? Who was the leader of scientific progress? Who was the leader of workers' rights? Sure, there were inspirational individuals along the way. But they happened as a result of millions of ordinary people demanding it, and never giving up. If we had waited for leaders to spontaneously see the light, we would be waiting still."

Or as Bilchbaum says, "Now that the world is in great danger, we really have to figure this out. It's a great moment."

The Yes Men Fix the World is now on general release in the UK, and will feature a live satellite screening and event beamed from the Sheffield Showroom on Tuesday, August 11th. More information from their website and after the link below. It is released in the US from October 17th.

Posters from the Yes Men Poster design contest.


Khine Wai Zaw, human rights activist, watches Burma VJ and shares his story

burma_vj_02Burma VJ has been met with very positive reviews in the UK following its release last week, with a 94% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but what do the Burmese depicted in the film make of it?

In his first contribution to Netribution, JJ Kim travelled to the heart of the pro-democracy movement in Thailand to watch the film with Khine Wai Zaw - who was involved the Saffron Uprising of 2007 - and hear his story. It's a fascinating insight into the benefit of social-documentaries from someone who grew up within the heart of the former British colony under the rule of the Junta.

It is Friday 9th July 2009. With the award winning “Burma VJ” released in British cinemas, many people get their first glimpse of the Saffron Revolution (2007) - the most comprehensively documented of many horror stories from Burma’s near half-century under oppressive military rule. Meanwhile, it is business as usual for the many organisations working in Burma’s neighbouring countries – in safety – to bring democracy back to the world’s second most corrupt country (Transparency International 2008).

The heart of the Burmese pro-democracy movement is in Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand, on the Burmese border, a six-hour bus-ride from Chiang Mai, where much of Burma VJ was produced and even directed remotely. A transient town - with many Burmese migrant workers and Non-Governmental Organisations of all kinds - Mae Sot is home to many politicians, educators, religious leaders and activists who have been forced into exile. However, far from running away from their pasts, many have set up organisations to support those suffering in Burma and inform the world of the extreme injustices inflicted on civilians by the nation’s totalitarian military regime.

“Modern technology has made the movement very different. When we watch this film we can gain an almost real experience... Many Burmese people are talking about it in blogs and internet chat. I don’t know if many people are watching it though – they have to be very careful...
If we get caught with it we will go to prison. If they find someone selling it there will be further punishment. I think its most important that this film is seen inside Burma."
Khine Wai Zaw

One such organisation, is the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress (AASYC), a largely political group based in both Thailand and Bangladesh. The AASYC office – walls adorned with banners saying “Free Arakan” and “SPDC out” (referring to the regime’s official name – The State Peace and Development Council) - is where I met with Khine Wai Zaw, to discuss his participation in the Saffron Revolution and  watch the film, Burma VJ.

Khine Wai Zaw, as he has made himself known since leaving Burma in December 2007, grew up in Mrauk-U, an ancient city in Arakan State, an area colonised by the Burmese in 1784. He had told me many times before about life growing up under martial law – in constant fear of surveillance. “In my hometown we saw soldiers everyday,” he began hesitantly. ”In groups of at least 4 with rifles or M16 machine guns. Sometimes, they would go to the market and buy things but pay very little or go to traditional local events so we used to fight them. They would come back the next day with more military so many of my brothers had to leave the city and now they can never go home because the soldiers are looking for them.

However, these things are rarely talked about in Burma – out of pure fear of incarceration or worse. Military intelligence officials in civilian clothing are on every corner, in work places and in every teashop, eagerly seeking a chance to report a “traitor” to their superiors, condemning them to imprisonment, torture or even murder for expressing their opinions. “In Yangon, we had to discuss politics very slowly and carefully because our brothers were involved in underground political activities - we would be watched all the time and many brothers had to leave.”

Burma VJ tells the story of the Saffron Revolution of 2007, the first nationwide uprising in Burma for 19 years. The revolt was brought to a sudden halt when over a hundred civilians, including monks and students were shot dead and far more were detained without trial.

The roots of the uprising

“The soldiers began to shoot and in the same moment many people that we had been protesting with all day turned on us and started beating us; it became apparent that these people were also working for the SPDC... I saw many girls falling – they were very afraid! That was the last day I protested.”
Khine Wai Zaw

On the 15th September 2007, 20 year-old Khine Wai Zaw could tell something was different as he prepared for the two-day journey to Yangon (Rangoon), where he would stay with his Aunt and Uncle. That day, Khine Wai Zaw saw something he’d never seen before: monks and other civilians demonstrating against the government, openly talking to crowds about political ideals such as democracy and human rights.  “I had never seen protests before. Many people had closed their shops and restaurants. Many policemen and soldiers were talking on their phones and many monks were chanting and marching. I was excited and a little scared. I had goose-bumps”

burma_vj1By the 25th of September, millions were mobilised across the country- monks, teachers, writers, students and housewives alike were marching through the streets calling for a justice that they barely understood. “I didn’t know much about democracy at that time but I knew that I wanted to change our system because everyday I faced many difficulties. In every street in Yangon there were many prostitutes, many beggars and many soldiers walking and in vehicles.“

At first many watched the monks from the sidelines, apprehensive to join in. Scenes from Burma VJ show a march through downtown Yangon while thousands watch from their windows cheering and clapping from their windows. “They were afraid. Even though they were clapping their hands, they were afraid. I think one thousand people were watching us and then they joined us slowly, slowly. “ Khine Wai Zaw recalls from another part of town where he joined in the demonstration.

Whilst watching the film with Khine Wai Zaw and three young Arakanese girls - the atmosphere was infectious. Excited murmurs quickly turned into laughter and cheers from the AASYC office while the girls saw sights they had never imagined: literally thousands of civilians defying the system and expressing their anti-military sentiments loud and proud.

But the atmosphere quickly changed once the first signs of violence came to the screen. (continued...)


Franny Armstrong - Determination amidst a rising sea of stupidity

franny-at-work.previewAs the Age of Stupid opens with a record-breaking simultaneous world premiere to a potential million viewers across 550 screens in over 60 countries over the next few days, a look back at James MacGregor's interview with Franny ahead of the UK release:

It was over three years ago that James MacGregor first reported here that Franny Armstrong, director of the acclaimed McLibel, was looking to sell shares in her new climate change film. It seemed a long shot at the time, yet, through selling shares to hundreds of people, Armstrong and producer Lizzie Gillett raised over £450,000 - by far the most successful use of crowdsourced funding in the film industry to date (Greenwald/Gilliams' Iraq for Sale raised $287,000).

From this beginning, through to a 'people's premiere' this Sunday across 64 cinemas in the UK - which makes it both potentially the world's largest ever film premiere (Guiness Book of Records on standby) and the first solar powered gala to grace Leicester Square - Armstrong and Gillett have redefined the boundaries of what is possible with a documentary that, in the words of Ken Livingstone "every single person in the country should be forcibly made to watch".

age_of_stupidWhere An Inconvenient Truth focussed on facts and figures to build an indisputable case about global warming, the Age of Stupid, takes us to the human stories around the world that illustrate the impact, denial, and inadequate responses to climate change right now. There are repentent oil workers and a defiant budget airline entrepreneur. There's the incredible hostility from the Brits to windfarms (80% of applications get rejected because of reactionary local groups) and the fatherly figure of Pete Postlethwaite watching from the future, asking why we never did more when we still could.

The format seems really well shaped for a YouTube era, lending itself easily to be broken into small segments under 10 mins; animations and mini-films which focus on different areas of the topic and hopefully after the film is released more fo these mini-films will be released online to spread the message further (and promote the full feature). They work well independently and together paint an ever stronger picture that the economic recovery must be used to restart business on a completely different footing: business as usual will lead to unimaginable suffering and death. Just this week, scientists in Copehagan have said that the worst case scenarios of two years ago were far too optimistic.


ASGER LETH: risking everything to make GHOSTS OF CITE SOLEIL


“We were being chased to the airport by a bunch of chimeres, and people were being shot on the streets. Just at the airport, in front of the terminal, a guy got shot right when we arrived.”

I don't know if Denmark’s Asger Leth has ever actually said he would die for his art. Actions speak louder than words, though, and while making the controversial documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, Leth often wondered if he and his co-director/ cinematographer, Milos Loncarevic, would live long enough to finish the project. To get film in the can they risked going home in a box.


Documentary award winner Clare Richards: We're all just human beings

clare_richardsClare Richards won the prestigious Grierson documentary award for her directorial debut, Disabled and Looking for Love, on Friday 14 November. Even now the shock hasn’t worn off for her, as she said: “I’m feeling a bit calmer about it now. But it was wonderful to have been nominated.”

On the film’s subject, she said: “It’s about looking for a partner through the eyes of people who have disabilities to contend with.” Clare filmed her subjects speaking about forming relationships, as well as in social situations, where difficult truths were often revealed.


Inside a Grierson-Nominated Documentary: DISABLED AND LOOKING FOR LOVE

'The idea that a disabled person should want to have a sex life is still considered fairly taboo, I have found. Non-disabled people don't like to think about it, or at least they aren't confronted by it as an issue, because it's easier for non-disabled people to go to bars, get drunk and cop off even if they find it hard to form lasting relationships. It's just not as easy for someone who has a disability to think ‘right, I fancy a shag I'll go and get laid', or think, ‘right I think I am about ready to get into a relationship with someone now' and really start looking because a lot of disabled people are housebound, rely on care 24 hours a day or simply can't afford to get themselves to a bar that happens to have disabled access and a toilet - and that's assuming they are mentally prepared to be shunned as a person for simply being disabled.'

Clare Richards, Winner, Grierson newcomer award, Director of Disabled and Looking For Love

James MacGregor has been talking to Clare Richards about her remarkable debut documentary which landed a Grierson Newcomer nomination before scooping the Newcomer Award.


JULIEN TEMPLE - Putting Glastonbury on screen

We are in danger of becoming extinct. We worry about the rhino and the blue copper butterfly or whatever, but we are on our way to becoming a different thing, a half-computerised species. I think there is something about just the eccentricity of the Englishness of the Glastonbury Festival that does say, ‘Remember you’re a human being and you’re not programmed. However much you’re bombarded with things telling you what to be, you should find that in yourself and with other people, and not ever lose that or you’ll lose humanity.’ And the journey’s been so rapid so far, we should wake up to that, not just global warming, which is a problem the festival pointed out 35 years ago. We should worry about the very nature of our humanity and of our soul being taken away.


DIRECTOR ROBERT GREENWALD - Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

I knew very little about Wal-Mart, I was incredibly ignorant, so it was a huge learning experience for me. It’s embarrassing that I didn’t know much but it’s also what made making this film so amazing for me, because I’m coming in, in a sense, with the audience’s eyes. So the amount of influence they have over so many people, in so many different ways, made a huge impact on me and all my colleagues working on the film, and it really gave us this incredible sense of responsibility in terms of trying to do it and trying to do it well, and trying to reach as many people as we could. Because whether you’re a home owner or a worker who’s being exploited, or someone where the environment’s being affected, or working in a sweatshop overseas, or a family business that’s been driven out, Wal-Mart is an equal-opportunity abuser and its spread is quite amazing.


MICHAEL BURNS: In the Crosshairs of Preventive War.

"I made this film because I feel a sense of responsibility as an American.  Here we are, living in a place of enormous wealth, opportunity, beauty and privilege, where alongside those things, and to preserve those things, our government engages in extremely dangerous behavior. Here, if you choose, you can ignore US foreign policy. Meanwhile, around the world, American foreign, economic and military policy, is not something you can ignore. In fact, it is determining the course of your life, your aspirations and your potential. So, as an American, I have the chance to try and do something about that..."