How To Impersonate A Yes Man


"There’s a new dawn rising at Shell," a short man with a megaphone tells a group of people wearing white chemical suits. "We’re sorry for the gas flares that make your rivers toxic."

International petrochemical company Shell has apparently chosen The Hague, in the Netherlands, as the place to come clean about human rights violations in the Niger Delta. It’s an anti-climatic affair. The square where the group has gathered is nearly empty. The white-suited folk are claiming to be Shell workers — but the dreadlocks and unkempt hair some of them sport are a giveaway.

After the group forms the word "sorry" with their bodies, they cheer. "Boo," say some teenage boys playing hacky sack nearby.

It’s been a not-so-successful stunt for activist pranksters and corporate impersonators The Yes Men, who organised the crowd in The Hague, in conjunction with Amnesty International, at the Movies that Matter Festival. Shell’s PR complained that the accusations levelled at the company misrepresented the complexity of the situation. Other stunts have certainly generated much more publicity.

The man with the mic is Mike Bonanno, one of the group’s frontmen, who is in Europe to promote their latest film, The Yes Men Fix the World.

Bonanno is not actually who he says he is. His real name is Igor Vamos, which he claims is an unconvincing name to use if you’re dressing up as the spokesperson of a Fortune 500 company or trying to fool the US Chamber of Commerce. 

Vamos was full of energy during the Shell Apologises stunt and the audience responded gleefully to his film. Later, slumped on a hotel lobby floor in a secondhand suit, he admits to a bit of fatigue after only three hours sleep: another day in the life of an independent filmmaker dealing with DIY distribution and publicity.

"Our international distribution for the film has been a bit of a joke. You know, we have a sales agent, a US sales agent takes a cut of that, and then you slowly end up divvying up this non-existent pie," Vamos tells

The movie won an audience award at the Berlin International Film Festival last year and has toured the world, but The Yes Men still aren’t reaping financial profits, Vamos claims.

So far Vamos and his fellow Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum (real name Jacques Servin) have lost money on both The Yes Men Fix The World and the 2003 The Yes Men. Both have full-time academic jobs and they fund their films with their own money and the help of friendly individual "investors", he says. "There are at least 100 people in the credits for our movie, and I think none of them were paid."

While their films might not be lucrative, there’s more than financial gain at stake. Vamos says that short of changing public opinion, "I think that we are changing minds, and encouraging some people to push their ideas further, encouraging a lot of young people."

At Q & A sessions after screenings at universities, Vamos says the same issue is always raised by students: "Everybody’s telling them there’s a great risk in engaging in some kind of activism, that they might not get a job."

Vamos doesn’t agree. He insists that the greater danger lies in not participating in activist campaigns. "You’re really cheating yourself and in a way, cheating your own future, because college students today are going to have to deal with the future that they’re inheriting from our mistakes right now."

In their early days, The Yes Men were not too concerned about hindering future employment opportunities. When Vamos was a 21-year-old undergraduate art student, he vomited up a stomach full of potatoes dyed red, white and blue outside a Republican fundraising event. "If I had decided to take a more conservative path and try to get a good job, I don’t know if I would have a good job today; and I do, and it’s largely because I followed my convictions."

Vamos has tenure as a professor of electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. ("So they can’t fire me," he told the Movies That Matter crowd earlier in the day.) He preaches what he practices, teaching graduate students the fine art of "creative activism". It’s a pricey way to protest — without funding, a two year masters program at the Rensselaer will set you back US$76,200.

Even with this teaching interest and the Yes Men’s use of the internet to enhance and sometimes to execute their pranks, Vamos says that he doesn’t buy the rhetoric that social media will revolutionise fundamental power dynamics in the world.

"I would say, yes, Web 2.0 is going to change everything, but Web 1.0 didn’t do squat for changing everything," he says. "You look at what was going on in the 60s in relation to mobilising people and the seachange of attitudes and ideas, and it so dwarfs anything that’s happened since in Europe and the United States."

And rather than trumpeting the hope that Web 2.0 will enlighten people in the developing world, Vamos says that the people he met during filming were already sufficiently enlightened.

In one scene in The Yes Men Fix the World, the pranksters accept full responsibility for the Bhopal gas leak on behalf of Dow Chemicals, and promise financial compensation to those affected. Afterwards, Vamos says, "we were told by the BBC that they had been given false hope, that they had had their hopes dashed." This didn’t prove to be so. "What we found was that that was not the case at all, that these people were incredibly sophisticated in terms of their understanding of their position relative to the rest of the world, to globalisation and relative to the free market running roughshod over their needs."

Without giving too much of the movie away, Vamos’s words reflect another scene in the film, where an older woman is asked by a local US media outlet how she felt when she learnt the promise of having her home returned to her was just another one of the culture jammers’ pranks.

"I respect this hoax, because maybe it’ll take a hoax like this to bring them out here to see what we’re going through," she tells the reporter, defiantly. "So if a hoax is what it’ll be, then a hoax is what we’ve got."

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