Interview with Jen Senko, Director, Producer, and Writer of The Brainwashing of My Dad
In the film you say, “In asking the question what happened to my dad, it’s really like asking what happened to our media, and in asking what happened to our media, it’s like asking what happened to our country.” How did the idea for Brainwashing come to you? Did you understand how widespread right-wing media brainwashing was from the start, or is it something you figured out as you made the film?
Actually, I said that in the trailer, not in the film. But it is the question at the heart of the film. Media is very powerful. It is more powerful than many of us would like to believe. It has the power to influence an entire country.
I had done my first documentary in the early 90s. It too was socio-political. It was called Road Map Warrior Women and was about my seeking out independent women in the West as I sought to be more independent myself. And it was in the early 90s that this right-wing media was really making my dad a crazy person. So after my first doc, I think in the mid 90s I started fantasizing about making a film about the effects of this right-wing media on my dad. I felt there was something very important and very alarming going on. But I had so much more to learn. So that’s what I did. I set about learning whatever I could about the history and construct of this particular media.
Then in 2007 my friend, Fiore DeRosa and I co-directed another socio-political film called The Vanishing City about the ‘luxurification’ of New York and other cities around the world. Two years after its completion, I knew it was time to make Brainwashing. I knew enough both in terms of making a documentary and I knew enough to see how right-wing media had continued to hurt my father and was dividing the nation. But I still had no idea it was such a phenomenon to the degree that it is.
When I had my Kickstarter campaign, I was trying to raise $15,000 and ended up raising over $40,000 with 947 backers. Many of these backers had a story. People from all over the country started reaching out to me to tell me their sad or sometimes even tragic stories. That’s when I realized it was a huge phenomenon. To this day, in fact every day, someone tells me a story of how this same thing happened to their loved one.
One last interesting thing to note: when I titled the film, I did not necessarily believe in brainwashing but felt it was a good title because that is what it felt like to many people. After the movie was finished, I revisited that question and asked myself what I believed now, and I came to the belief that indeed he was brainwashed through stealth.
Brainwashing was released in March 2016, but it helps answer the “How did this happen?” question that so many Americans weren’t asking until November of that year when Trump was elected. Did making this film give you insight into the election? What are your thoughts on the upcoming 2018 election?
We were hoping we could get the film done and out into the public before the 2016 election so that people could understand how someone like Trump could happen and how people became pro Trump. We felt if more people knew how right-wing media manipulated folks and got them to vote against their own interests, perhaps we could circumvent a disaster. We had high hopes. We just couldn’t make that deadline. The film would need more time to be widely seen and the public would need a lot more time to digest it anyway.
It does seem now that at least some are beginning to understand what disruption and division right-wing media has wrought upon our nation. I am seeing articles addressing the subject and am beginning to see it occasionally discussed on other news shows. I’d like to think the film is contributing to that awareness. I have this theory that when you throw a pebble in the water it causes ripples. As for the election in 2018, media has become more complicated with algorithms and bots on social media keeping people in those media bubbles. I believe we all have to become vocal about this. We have to stigmatize this hateful, destructive right-wing media. Right-wing media and its rise and power is the most significant factor in why and how our country became so divided and, therefore, should be one of the most important topics—aside from climate change and how Russians can influence this upcoming election—for this half century.
One of the ideas you explore in the film is the sense that those who have been programmed by right-wing media can be reprogrammed. Do you think there’s a way to expand the reach of individual reprogramming to wider populations?
I think by having media literacy taught in the schools we can prevent some of this from happening in the first place. And I think if the corporate media covers and exposes the lies and manipulative tactics of right-wing media, people can be educated that way as well. It is very difficult to deprogram someone, although it’s not impossible.
The amygdala of those who have been brainwashed by this media is actually bigger. That’s the primitive reptilian part of the brain where fear is located. If you are reaching out to an individual, you first have to try to deactivate their amygdala by finding some common ground. Otherwise, they will just be in defense mode. My friends at Hear Yourself Think: Uniting Against the Politics of Fear are experts at reaching those on “the other side.” In fact, they have a deprogramming guide you can find on their website.
I would perhaps venture to say maybe we could have interventions with our loved ones whose personalities have drastically changed due to their immersion in right-wing media. I do understand that would be difficult to do because it’s likely other loved ones of the family member or friend think the way they do. So one may not have enough people to confront them with. I would say if someone wanted to attempt this, that it should be more about the personality change than their new specific beliefs. Understand, I’m going out on a limb here. Another expert I can refer you to regarding deprogramming is Steven Hassan who had reached out to me after seeing Brainwashing. He’s written a number of books on this subject.
Although Brainwashing looks at the history of media and politics in the US, it is also an intimate family drama. How did you approach the personal side of the project and what was filming your parents and brother like?
My dad was used to me going around with a camera. He knew I was a filmmaker. I was fortunate that he was also sometimes a ham. I think he enjoyed the attention. For those of us who make documentaries, we know how people sometimes just amazingly open up in front of a camera. It’s like they “have the floor” and can say what they want without interruption or judgement. When I wasn’t interviewing and just shooting B-roll or conversations, I used a very unobtrusive camera. I think that helped. My mother actually said she “wasn’t afraid of that camera.” Plus it was me. I’m pretty unassuming and actually kind of goofy, so I think my family felt comfortable with me or one of my “friends” shooting. Both my brothers were eager to express what had been extremely frustrating to them as well. It was a tough time in my family for too many years.
One of the most poignant scenes in Brainwashing is when your Kickstarter campaign leads to dozens of people reaching out to you about their own brainwashed relatives and even their own brainwashing. What was your strategy for incorporating their stories into the film?
At first, I didn’t know there would be so many people who had these experiences but when I saw what a phenomenon it was I thought it was important to incorporate some of their stories into the film, much like a chorus. It was important to me for the film not to be boring. I wanted people to be entertained as well as informed. So I thought of their stories as emotional notes scattered throughout the film. When all the information being put out needed a ‘break,’ I would add the emotional note.
I decided I would try to film the personal stories via Skype with my camera because there was no way I was going to be able to afford visiting all those people. In some cases my co-writer and 2nd camera person, Melodie Bryant, would be out in California and interview the storyteller in person. We had the same camera so the footage would match. Occasionally also my editor and I would sometimes go shoot someone in person who was local. But most of it was via Skype. I did an experiment and it turned out OK. We just wanted to make sure it had a different look in the film so that it didn’t look like a mistake. That’s why we labeled it “Skype Interview” and gave it a different graphic treatment.
Many of our readers work in the media industry and having a crowdfunding campaign seeking $15,000 that ends up raising over $40,000 is a feat many of us would love to also accomplish. What advice can you share about how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign?
I just tried to keep it as personal and real as possible. I wanted people to somehow see that I was a good person and trustworthy, but that I also had the chops to get the project done. You have to have good rewards too. People really liked the “Skype with the director” reward. They want to feel involved and almost like they’re part of the process of making the film. You have to have a good trailer, of course, that captures the essence of the whole idea of the film. I believe having it seem like an important and vital message too makes people feel good about backing the project.
Depending on the project, I don’t think it needs to necessarily look slick. It mainly has to be emotionally grabbing. Even still, you have to know ahead of time to what friends and relatives you can tell about the campaign and have those people ready in the beginning to start contributing. As anyone knows who has run a campaign, you are basically busy every hour of every day promoting it, so pretty much putting that month aside is necessary.
Women are underrepresented in every branch of the filmmaking process, but in cinematography our percentages are particularly small. You hired an all-female cinematography team. What was your collaboration with them like and do you think it’s important for women to hire fellow women as crewmembers?
I was so proud that I had a woman editor and an all woman cinematography crew. It was wonderful working with Rachael Levine and Melodie Bryant for the cinematography. And when we traveled, it made it easy—we could all stay in the same room! Occasionally we would have to bring in someone else when either Melodie or Rachael couldn’t make it. Still, much of the time that other person was a woman. One time I even gave the camera to my mother to shoot me at the bus station. I produced a number of short narrative films and had met Rachael on the set of a short by Lynwood Sawyer called, Downsizing of the Gods. I thought she was cool and no drama and wanted to give a woman a chance to be DP. We also used a couple women artists. I think it is important as a woman to give women a chance. There are plenty of really talented, easy to work with women out there. Find them.
You interviewed an impressive number of experts, among them Noam Chomsky. What was that experience like and what strategies did you use to weave their voices into the story?
I had an outline of the topics I wanted to cover before I started the film. After the interviews, I had each one transcribed. Then in a column next to the transcription, at about every 20 seconds of the transcription, I would note the topic it best fit into. That made it easy for me to search for the topic I wanted in the transcription of the person I wanted commenting on it. I would “yellow-ize” (that’s what we called it instead of highlight. I don’t know why) sentences that most reflected the various topics. Sometimes it was difficult. For instance, Mr. Chomsky just pretty much talked about whatever he wanted—and we didn’t stop him! So we would sometimes have to “Frankenstein” what was said, but all the while make sure it didn’t look too clunky on screen. We also had to be very careful to keep it true to what the experts were actually saying.
Some documentaries that provide a lot of vital information like yours does feel like a college lecture, but yours managed to not only teach but also to entertain. How did you go about balancing the educational and entertainment functions of the story?
As I mentioned earlier, I thought it was important to have emotional notes throughout the film to keep it from being boring. My former co-director on The Vanishing City, Fiore DeRosa, came on board near the end of the film and went through the entire film and would say “OK, at 20 minutes you drone on and have no humor. You need to inject some humor somewhere before the end of this section!” What he did was essential.
Also Adam Rackoff, our producer, approached Bill Plympton about doing some animation. That lightened the tone but also made some heavy concepts easy to understand. We all were very conscious of having the film be entertaining too. I think having actor and independent filmmaker, Matthew Modine, share the narration helped it from getting boring with just my voice. I could do the more personal narration and he could do the more factual narration.
Besides having a successful crowdfunding campaign, the film also received one of the independent filmmaker holly grails by streaming on Amazon. How did you get Brainwashing there and how has the platform increased the story’s reach?
Adam Rackoff found us an aggregator called Gravitas. They put us on all these different platforms, including Amazon. It’s good to know that’s a big deal! I didn’t know!
What are you working on now and how does what you learned from Brainwashing help you with that project?
I made a decision to not work on another idea I had and to continue to push this film. I’m getting more and more offers to screen and/or interview as the film is so relevant. Its topic is super important to me. I am not just a filmmaker, I am an activist and this subject is the subject of the last half century and must be brought into the conversation—so that is what I am doing. Maybe I will be ready in another year to do another film. I have some ideas…