Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Yes Men

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE YES MEN

7/10

USA 2003 : Chris SMITH, Dan OLLMAN, Sarah PRICE : 80 mins

Shot on grainy hand-held video then blown up to 35mm for cinema-screen projection, you’d never call The Yes Men very pretty to look at. And the mirror it holds up to the modern world isn’t very flattering, either: the immediate targets are corporate capitalism in general and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but the problems diagnosed go much deeper and wider. Deeper and wider even than those pinpointed by the likes of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore (who appears here) in their recent documentaries, although the humour here is closer to British TV groundbreakers like Chris Morris and Ali G.

The Yes Men are a shadowy, US-based group of satirical activists who set up a website spoofing the WTO’s own online presence a couple of years ago. Amazingly, they soon started getting invitations from people thinking they were the WTO. Sensing a potential opportunity, they played along, turning up at various conferences and symposiums to deliver outrageous comments under the WTO banner. They discovered that, no matter how shocking their statements, they would be accepted without demur or question by their audiences. The Yes Men follows a handful of such activities, principally a presentation in Finland which featuring an especially imaginative and spectacular ‘display.’ It’s remarkable to see these ludicrous suggestions accepted at face value by dozens of educated, intelligent people who really should know a lot better (although the traditions of Scandinavian respect and politeness also probably played a part.)

On one level, The Yes Men – which builds from a slightly shaky, woolly start – is easily one of the year’s funniest films, with the computer-generated simulations projected during the presentations are the riotous highlights. But even as we’re laughing, we realise that the fundamental import is chillingly serious. As someone bluntly asks in bemused exasperation, “What can’t they get away with?” in a world which all too often follows Margaret Thatcher’s instruction to her policy chiefs of “thinking the unthinkable.”

The Yes Men stands in a proud lineage of savage irony that stretches back at least as far as Jonathan Swift, whose deadpan ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729) advocated the eating of babies as a solution to problems of overpopulation and hunger. The closest The Yes Men come to this Swiftian horror is a pseudo-WTO scheme in which the excrement of Western burger-eaters is recycled back into Big Macs for developing-world markets – a scheme so foul that it’s (eventually) spotted as a hoax by an audience of high-schoolers (experiencing what may well be the most valuable lesson of all.) This is, in what’s in some ways a somewhat depressing film, a welcome ray of optimism, as it suggests that future generations may not be quite so ready to swallow the corporate line as their parents and grandparents. ‘Question authority’ is the basic message – not that you should take my word at face value, of course…

6th December, 2004
[seen 13th November : Cankarjev Dom, Ljubljana, Slovenia : public show : Ljubljana International Film Festival]

Check out more reviews from Ljubljana International Film Festival here

by Neil Young