In the beginning, we thought we were making a funny movie about a series of activist pranks, like our first documentary, The Yes Men (dir. Chris Smith, Sarah Price, Dan Olman, United Artists, 2003). But in the first week of shooting, the first thing we did had such unexpected effects that we had to dig deeper into what it all meant. This could not be another observational documentary; this time we needed to try to expose the very systems and structures that have made our world what it is.
It all started with a call from an environmental activist friend of ours, Gillo Cutrupi. He had seen The Yes Men, which showed us impersonating the World Trade Organization and ridiculing them and the system they represent. Gillo suggested we apply our “skills” to a much more concrete issue, one that struck to the very core of what is wrong with the world: corporate governance. Dow Chemical, Gillo told us, had recently bought Union Carbide, the company that caused the Bhopal catastrophe (the world’s largest industrial accident). Carbide had never cleaned up the site, and their CEO had even skipped bail in India. Now Dow was saying that although they had bought Union Carbide, they did not own the liabilities, but only the assets, and had no obligation to the Bhopalis.
This was worse than wrong; it was profoundly criminal. Could we somehow shame Dow
Chemical into doing what’s right? If so, we might set a global precedent that would mean
companies would think twice before endangering thousands of people – or buying the companies that did.
So we set up a fake Dow Chemical website, and we waited. Then, a week before the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe, we got the chance of a lifetime when the BBC mistook our fake Dow Chemical website for the real thing, and asked for a Dow representative to appear live on their show.
We sprang into action. Mike flew down to Paris, where Andy lived at the time, and followed
him into the studio with a camera. There, in front of 300 million viewers, one “Jude Finisterra” took responsibility for the largest industrial disaster in history on behalf of Dow Chemical, and announced a $12 billion dollar plan to clean up the mess and at long last settle with the victims. At first we felt great! This was the biggest coup we had ever pulled off. But that night we learned that during the hour when the stock market had believed Dow was doing the right thing in Bhopal, Dow’s stock lost $2 billion in value! The financial system had effectively punished what it thought was Dow’s good behavior.
Once we wrapped our head around this sad fact, we knew what our film had to do: expose the idiocy of an economic system that rewards criminality. What we didn’t know was that we would spend the next five years following this story through some of the weirdest filming adventures imaginable – and even, at one point, underwater!
At the end, we were glad it had taken so long, because right before we finished, the mortgage crisis hit, the “free market” was revealed to be a big con, and the whole economy fell to pieces. Everything we’d been talking about in the film was being talked about on the street. Where before people had given us blank looks when we talked about “markets,” now people were listening, nodding in agreement, and relating their own stories of economic injustice.
For decades, environmentalists have been telling the world that we’re all in deep trouble, and that our civilization’s pursuit of endless growth will kill us as surely as any disease. Many of us thought they were right, but nobody knew how soon the whole world would be forced to listen. Today, our understanding of climate change means that problems we thought we had centuries to figure out, we must deal with in a decade. The rules of the game have changed. So what do we do?
So far, we’ve all done very little. For our part, we decided to make our movie into a popular, comedic call to action. A system that punishes a company for doing the right thing by its victims will, if left unchecked, take all of us over the cliff’s edge. Can we make people laugh hard enough that they cry, and then set out to change things? We’ll see. In any case, it’s all we can do.