Anti-corporate pranksters and gonzo political activists the Yes Men are back with a new film, The Yes Men Fix the World. The movie follows Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno as they infiltrate and expose the world of big business through high-profile outrageous pranks. From ExxonMobil to Halliburton, no industry is too big for the Yes Men’s hoaxes. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the country’s favorite anti-corporate pranksters and gonzo political activists, the Yes Men, are back, this time with a new film called The Yes Men Fix the World. An official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the documentary debuts on HBO on Monday.
The Yes Men Fix the World follows Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno as they infiltrate and expose the world of big business through high-profile outrageous pranks. From Exxon Mobil to Halliburton, no industry is too big for the Yes Men’s hoaxes.
The film opens with one of the Yes Men’s most audacious pranks: impersonating a Dow Chemical spokesperson on BBC World News in a 2004 broadcast that reached 300 million people. Andy Bichlbaum, who identified himself as Jude Finisterra and claimed to represent Dow Chemical, took responsibility for the world’s largest industrial accident, which took place in 1984 in the central Indian city of Bhopal.
BBC WORLD: Joining us live from Paris now is Jude Finisterra. He’s a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide.
Good morning to you. A day of commemoration in Bhopal. Do you now accept responsibility for what happened?
JUDE FINISTERRA: Steve, yes. Today is a great day for all of us at Dow and, I think, for millions of people around the world, as well. It’s twenty years since the disaster. And today I’m very, very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.
We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victims, including the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives, and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site.
Now, when we acquired Union Carbide three years ago, we knew what we were getting, and it’s worth $12 billion. $12 billion. We have resolved to liquidate Union Carbide, this nightmare for the world and this headache for Dow, and use the $12 billion to provide more than $500 per victim, which is all that they’ve seen, a maximum of just about $500 per victim. It is not “plenty good for an Indian,” as one of our spokespersons unfortunately said a couple of years ago. In fact, it pays for one year of medical care. We will adequately compensate the victims.
Furthermore, we will perform a full and complete remediation of the Bhopal site, which, as you mentioned, has not been cleaned up. When Union Carbide abandoned the site twenty years ago, or sixteen years ago, they left tons of toxic waste, which continues —- the site continues to be used as a playground by children. Water continues to be drunk from the groundwater underneath. It’s a mess, Steve, and we at Dow -—
BBC WORLD: It’s a mess, certainly, Jude. That’s good news that you have finally accepted responsibility. Some people would say too late. It’s three years —
JUDE FINISTERRA: Yes.
BBC WORLD: — almost four years on. How soon is your money going to make a difference to the people in Bhopal?
JUDE FINISTERRA: Well, as soon as we can get it to them, Steve. We’ve begun the process of liquidating Union Carbide. This is, as you mentioned, late, but it is the only thing we can do. When we acquired Union Carbide, we did settle their liabilities in the United States immediately. And we are now, three years later, prepared to do the same in India. We should have done it three years ago; we are doing it now. I would say that it’s better late than never.
And I would also like to say that this is no small matter, Steve. This is the first time in history that a publicly owned company of anything near the size of Dow has performed an action which is significantly against its bottom line simply because it’s the right thing to do. And our shareholders may take a bit of a hit, Steve, but I think that if they’re anything like me, they will be ecstatic to be part of such a historic occasion of doing right by those that we’ve wronged.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The hoax ran twice on BBC World and was picked up by the major news wires before the BBC determined that no man named Jude Finisterra worked at Dow and that he was an imposter. The action caused Dow’s market value to drop $2 billion in less than a half hour. Later that day, Dow corrected the apology that their supposed spokesperson had made.
MARINA ASHANIN: This morning a false statement was carried by BBC World regarding responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy. The individual who made this statement identified himself as a Dow spokesperson named Jude Finisterra. Dow confirms that there was no basis whatsoever for this report, and we also confirm that Jude Finisterra is neither an employee nor a spokesperson for Dow.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that action was from over five years ago, and it brought the ongoing tragedy in Bhopal back in the spotlight, reminding the world of Dow Chemical’s responsibility to those who survived the catastrophic gas leak. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, which has killed over 25,000 people. But Dow Chemical has still not been held accountable.
We’ll get to more on Bhopal in a minute, but right now we’re joined in our firehouse by the Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! The film will be airing, that you made, on HBO on Monday night, on July 27th, which includes this story. Now, Andy, Jude Finisterra, first, how did you come up with that name, when you were walking into the Paris studio, of Jude Finisterra?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, Jude is the patron saint of the impossible, and there’s absolutely no way a company like Dow will ever do the right thing in Bhopal, unless we force it. And Finisterra, of course, end of the world, end of the earth. It’s just never going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain your website guerrilla tactics, how even BBC got in touch with you.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, in this — sometimes we sneak our way into things more actively. In this case, we just had this website, dowethics.com, that looked just like the real Dow Chemical website. We launched it a couple of years earlier, gotten a little press around it, gotten it kind of seated in Google, and then, suddenly, a week before the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe, the BBC stumbled on the site.
AMY GOODMAN: And they invited you through the site.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So, they contacted you.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yep. Not our fault.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, for radio listeners, what you might not have seen is that as you started to say Dow is apologizing and giving — how much was it? How much money?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: It was $12 billion.
AMY GOODMAN: $12 billion, dissolving, liquidating Union Carbide, BBC started flashing “breaking news, breaking news.”
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Then they had you back on after they realized that they were hoaxed.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And they said to you, “You did this to the people of Bhopal. You gave them false hope.”
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Right. It was actually the BBC that we had kind of, you know, annoyed, by having them think that they were breaking the news of their career, basically, you know, a big BBC news scoop, and it turned out not to be true. They accused us of hurting the victims, you know, in Bhopal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, did Dow Chemical attempt any retribution, either against you or against the BBC, afterward?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: No, no, absolutely not.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, wasn’t there something interesting that happened? Dow said this wasn’t true, and then you decided to follow through with that, admit it wasn’t true, and you again put out a press release, in the name of Dow, saying, “We do not apologize to the victims.” Is this right? What did you say?
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah, well, Dow wasn’t really willing to make an extensive statement. They said — their statement was one line. It basically said, “That wasn’t us,” you know. And so, we thought, well, we really want to say what Dow ought to be saying, which is the reasons why they will never compensate the victims of Bhopal, and it’s because they’re not shareholders. You know, those people in Bhopal don’t own shares of Dow stock. And so, unless we change the laws, they’re not going to be held accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your fake press release, saying it was a hoax and that Dow does not take responsibility for the deaths of the people in Bhopal, that also was repeated and was printed and published all over the world.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yes, it was, afraid so.
AMY GOODMAN: What about some of your other pranks over the years? Can you talk about some of your favorites?
MIKE BONANNO: Well, there are quite a few now, and a lot of them are in this new movie, and that’s going to be released theatrically in the fall, as well. And one of, I think, our favorite, most entertaining ones, and that one was this Exxon hoax, where we represented Exxon and invented a new biofuel called Vivoleum that’s made from the victims of climate change. We announced to a big petroleum conference that we’re, you know, inventing this new biofuel, and we actually gave them candles made of the fuel and lit them and, you know, watched how they respond to that.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about some of the other actions. Andy, you once posed as a US government spokesperson and promised to reopen public housing in New Orleans and force oil giant Exxon to $12 billion to restore the region’s wetlands as a response to Hurricane Katrina. I want to go to this clip of the upcoming HBO documentary The Yes Men Fix the World. This is you in New Orleans.
RENE OSWIN: This afternoon, we will begin to reopen all public housing projects in New Orleans and allow these Americans to be part of their city once again. But opening doors — but opening doors won’t be enough. As you know, the main reason New Orleans was so vulnerable to Katrina was the destruction of the wetlands. I am very, very, very pleased to announce that Exxon and Shell have agreed to finance wetlands rebuilding from part of the $60 billion in profits this year. As J. Stephen Simon, Exxon vice president, writes, “Exxon Mobil is earmarking $8.6 billion from revenues our company has made in this region, so as to assure that Exxon Mobil never again has a hand in destroying a large American city.”
AMY GOODMAN: That was Andy Bichlbaum — I think you were introduced there as Rene Oswin. It was Alphonso Jackson who was supposed to attend, apparently, the head of HUD.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But they didn’t realize he wasn’t coming. You came instead of him. But the reason — you were the reason, or Jackson was, for both the governor coming, Blanco, Ray Nagin, the mayor. Everyone was there —-
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- as you made this announcement.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah, we promised the conference that Jackson would come. We posed as a public relations agency representing HUD, and we wanted to go to this conference, and we said Jackson will probably be coming, but don’t tell anybody, you know, because — we didn’t want them to tell anybody, because if they did, the real Jackson might find out and might announce that he’s not coming. But they did tell the mayor’s office and the governor’s office, and so Nagin and Blanco actually showed up at the conference to rub shoulders with him.
AMY GOODMAN: So it began with Blanco introducing Mayor Nagin.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Nagin spoke, and he actually had an interesting speech, very odd, as if he knew what was about to happen.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah, I thought he was onto me. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about two people who jumped into Lake Pontchartrain, one truth and the other one lies.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So you spoke. And what happened? Here you have — announcing the Exxon and Shell, going to give all this money.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, the contractors were thrilled. You know, they were — these people actually stood to lose a bit of money based on these announcements. We were not going to demolish and rebuild public housing the way they’re doing. We were instead going to rehabilitate the housing that there was and make it better for the residents, instead of making it market-rate apartments, which they’re doing. And the contractors, who might make a little less money this way, were really excited, because it was the right thing to do.
AMY GOODMAN: When did they realize it was a hoax?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: They never did.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And for the folks who are listening on the radio, there were hundreds of people in the audience as you were speaking.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah, yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: All these contractors and businesspeople.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to turn to a clip of another of your famous hoaxes. In May of 2006, Andy Bichlbaum posed as a corporate representative of Halliburton at a LexisNexis conference called “Catastrophic Loss” at the Ritz-Carlton in Florida. The corporate impersonator who called himself Fred Wolf went on to tell the conference-goers that Halliburton had come up with a new invention: the SurvivaBall, an orb-like inflatable suit that would keep corporate managers safe from global warming. While Fred Wolf suited up into the SurvivaBall, fellow Yes Man Mike Bonanno introduced the new technology.
FLORIAN OSENBERG: A few years ago, we were asked to take on a big challenge. In the R&D department at Halliburton, we’re usually dealing with oil rigs, things like that, drilling, questions of energy extraction. And they gave us a big challenge in 2001. They said, “We want something that’s going to be able to save a human being, no matter what Mother Nature throws at him.” And so, this is the answer: this is the Halliburton SurvivaBall.
As some of you probably know, amoebas can gather together — these are designed like amoebas, as single cells. But they can gather together and actually form another body. They aggregate, and they differentiate function. And so, these one-celled organisms come together as a single body.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Bonanno, that was you. Who were you there at the Ritz-Carlton in Florida?
MIKE BONANNO: I was called Florian Osenberg. And Osenberg is a Nazi scientist.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re, Andy, in a huge kind of dome, or orb-like. How did people respond? And that’s really the funniest in this film, is looking at the faces of people as they realize or, more often than not, don’t realize that you’re hoaxing them. They want to get the suit, the corporate suit. They want the protection.
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah, people were amused. Some of them were amused, but they were also — they took it quite seriously. And, in fact, afterward, we had a lot of questions about how we could use these in the case of terrorist attacks. So they were — you know, took it very seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your next project? What are you launching?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, we’ve got a lot of projects coming up in September. Right now, Friday, we’re launching a sort of participatory social network challenge game, where we’ve got some Yes Men actions and we’re challenging visitors to our website to perform these challenges. They’re not hard to do. We tell you how to do it. And we hope a lot of people do it. And if you win, we will, when — our film is launching at Film Forum October 7th in New York, and around that we have a lot of plans in New York for the theatrical, as a well as around the country, and we’re going to be showing clips that people come up with between now and then, before —-
AMY GOODMAN: Your website?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: theyesmen.org.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened in the New York Times last summer?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: A lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: We published a fake New York Times, announcing the end of the Iraq war, all the great things that could happen. It was one week after Obama’s election. And the paper was set six months in the future, and it was about a world that we could see if we rise up and make it happen. And the message is really that Obama being elected is not enough, of course. And now we know that very well. We have to have public pressure to make him do what we want him to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever been arrested, you guys, for doing what you’re doing?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Not for this.
MIKE BONANNO: Never been arrested. But if anybody wants to be arrested, we’re helping launch a website called “Beyond Talk,” which is a pledge of civil disobedience. So anybody who wants to participate in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in the name of climate change can go to beyondtalk.net and sign up.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Bonanno, Andy Bichlbaum, thank you very much for joining us. They are the Yes Men, co-directors, co-producers and co-stars of the new documentary, premiering on HBO on July 27th -— that’s Monday — it’s called The Yes Men Fix the World.