by Ed Symkus

A few years back, a film called American Movie: The Making of "Northwestern" hit the festival and art house circuit, calling attention to itself in that it was something new. Unlike films such as Best in Show, a fake documentary that looked real, American Movie was a real documentary that everyone thought was fake, due to the bizarre subject matter -- an unusually dysfunctional fellow who was hell bent on making a low-budget horror film.

Of the three people with a directing credit on The Yes Men, Chris Smith directed American Movie, Sarah Price was a producer and Dan Ollman was a production assistant. And again, the subject matter and the things the film's protagonists do are very real. It's just so outrageous, in a goofy/political sort of way, it's hard to believe no one on the screen is catching on.

This is a film that puts a spotlight on pranksterism, if there's such a word. It's about the comically subversive activities of two fellows: Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, a couple of ... hmmm, performance artists sounds right. Their mission over the past few years (the earliest scenes were shot in 2001) has been to practice counter-globalization tactics -- with humor.

These two guys, and whoever else is in their organization, developed a Web site with a homepage that looks a lot like the homepage on the World Trade Organization Web site. You know, the WTO, the mysterious and powerful international body that practices and celebrates the worldwide spread of commercial interests.

Well, Mike and Andy and friends think the WTO is a bunch of bad guys, and because it's very easy to mistake their Web site for the real thing, there are some inattentive groups and organizations out there who, upon finding out there are "WTO" representatives who would gladly speak at their conventions, happily take them up on their offer.

So off go Andy and Mike, with razor-sharp lectures in tow, ready to spring them on unsuspecting people. They play everything totally straight, yet manage to make major mockery of the WTO. Astoundingly, no one gets it. When they head off to a "Textiles of the Future" trade meeting in Finland, under fake names, Mike helps run things, while Andy gives a rousing Power Point presentation that involves the wearing of a very special gold suit that would have made both Elvis and Johnny Wadd proud.

These guys are funny and shocking and ever-ready to be written about in the mainstream press, as long as it looks like they're making fools of the WTO. Because they often leave the country to carry on their work, they're often speaking to audiences who might just not be sure what they're hearing. For instance, who in Europe, aside from historians, would understand the satirical irony of someone describing the American Civil War as "unprofitable," followed by a discussion of the "merits of slavery"?

Then again, who, in a U.S. college crowd ready for a WTO lecture, would even blink when a speaker goes on in great detail about how money can be saved by recycling food, and that hamburgers can be recycled 10 times -- all of this accompanied by graphic (and hysterically funny) video. Actually, in that case, quite a bit of blinking, and more, was going on.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno, if those are even their real names, are very serious about all of this, but there's a big sense of mischief all around them. And they're not alone in spreading their word. In an interesting sidelight, they're partially funded by the quite hip education-, arts-, and environment-friendly Herb Alpert Foundation.

Publication date: 11/11/04

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Sat., June 19, 12-7 p.m.
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