Filmmaker Jen Senko’s brilliant documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad has finally hit NYC and LA theaters, and is available on iTunes and VOD starting today; it deals with the (for lack of a better word) sorcery of right wing media outlets (like talk radio and Fox News) that can become all-consuming sources of “information” (often unsound) for the American public.
Senko uses her own experience with this phenomenon to frame the film; her father was brainwashed by the cult of Rush Limbaugh and other ultra-conservative radio and TV personalities, which completely changed him as a person. She, of course, is not alone in losing a parent or loved one in this way, and the movie folds in many other similar stories from people across the country. (I, too, unfortunately come from a family that has fallen victim to Fox News.)
The film provides an entertaining and informative look at a horrifying reality, and it’s a must watch to better understand the inner-workings of right wing media. (It’s also coming out at an incredibly crucial time considering the American public appears ready to elect madman Donald Trump as POTUS.) I was fortunate enough to speak to Senko a few days ago about the work that went into bringing this concept to life; internet-eavesdrop on our conversation below, and then be sure to watch the fascinating and important documentary on any/all of the aforementioned outlets.
So when was the initial moment that you decided you wanted to make this documentary?
Years ago. Probably like fifteen years ago. And I didn’t really quite feel like I had the skills yet, you know? I was probably a little afraid of it, because I knew it was a really big undertaking. But I kept getting fired from all my little jobs. Not that I did all my life; I did really well, but at a certain point, I started to say, “This is not what I want to do.” And it’s almost like you sabotage yourself for your better good. So after I did The Vanishing City with Fiore Derosa, I knew there was no excuse for me not to do it; it’s like, I knew how to get people to interview them, I knew about transcribing…I knew the whole setup, I just knew this was going to be double, maybe even triple the size. But I’m allowing myself to get fired from jobs, and I’m going like, “Hello?! It’s time! You’ve gotta do it! This is my life’s mission.” It was certainly passion-driven.
And it’s coming out at such a pivotal time!
I know! I thought it was too late (because my producer wanted it earlier), but the timing really is sort of uncanny. And also the fact that people are starting to talk about it more and more; people are coming out (even other republicans, like Bruce Bartlett, who is very respected) and saying, “You know what, guys? This is unproductive. This is not good for our party or our country.” More and more people are saying that, and there’s also more proof coming out that people are driven by this type of media to do horrible things. So that’s all coming out and people are starting to say it. People are starting to wake up.
Absolutely, and I think this film will definitely help that process along. Now, you’ve got some really heavy-hitting interviewees in this work, but was there anybody who was more difficult to get to participate than some of the others?
Well, Frank Luntz. He really admires Matthew [Modine], and he’d met Matthew. Matthew is a person of principle, and he’s amazing, and that’s one thing that Frank Luntz admired Matthew for. And he’s brilliant. So I had been trying to get Frank Luntz and we’d get put off, but Matthew called him up and we got him. And Chomsky was a little tricky, but a friend of mine, Eileen Sutton, worked with him on WBAI and was a fan of The Vanishing City, and she called up one day and said, “You know, Jen, you ought to talk to Noam. I don’t know if he’d do it, because he doesn’t do documentaries anymore, but you should write something up and I’ll send it to him.” So, you know, him being interested in the media, he was thankfully interested in the project. That was so cool.
Oh yeah, definitely a fantastic addition. Now, backtracking to Frank, has he seen this?
I’m kind of afraid to tell him. I don’t know. He did ask for some of the footage for his teaching materials for his students, so he obviously was proud of some of it. But I suppose I should email him to say, “The movie’s out if you want to come see it…” [Laughs]
Well good luck with that! And after you compiled all of the interviews and the research, what was the process like of editing it all together? I mean, I’m sure that was just a massive, exhausting experience.
I have to admit, I do like to talk about this; I worked so hard…I hadn’t worked that hard since college, I think. For two years it’s all I did. In fact, I got pneumonia, I got shingles, I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown at some points, all because I was so stressed out. I worked almost every single day, twelve, fourteen hours a day. And thank god I had my trusty editor, because she’d find little tidbits, like the time she found she found the little piece where I’m confronting Frank Luntz so you know that it wasn’t just some footage that we pulled. So fortunately I had a partner in crime, and we both killed ourselves, but it made it a little easier. For two years we just worked solid.
So what did you do for morale during that time?
I watched The Bachelor.
Really! [Laughs] I know it’s trash, but I like it.
I feel you; sometimes it’s just so nice to watch that mind-melting stuff. (The relaxing kind of mind-melting, not the Fox News kind of mind-melting, of course.) Now, I have to ask, being at the sort of helm of your film concept, did your dad feel weird about any of this at any point?
My dad is such a ham, and he was so used to me having a camera and shooting everybody. (It was rare that we had lights or anything like that; it was mostly handheld cameras.) I was shooting my mom mostly with it, and then in the beginning he’d say, “What’re you doing?” and I’d say, “I’m making a movie about you and mom.” And he’d just start talking! He was a ham. He loved talking, you know?
Yeah, and you can definitely see that coming through at the end, especially when he’s kind of been shaken out of “the cult”, you know? But there are definitely people who, I think, would maybe feel uncomfortable or even put off by sort of being the plot driver for a documentary film like this one.
Oh yeah, and that’s why I didn’t do it earlier; I was scared of him. Once he moved to that retirement home and lost the radio, you know, he was a little tiny bit easier. But the first scene where you see him ranting, that was the first time that I was able to get him like that. And it was not pleasant.
Oh I bet! So he’s gotten away from all of that right wing media now, and I’m so glad! But is there any advice you’d give to people whose parents (or family or friends) are currently being brainwashed? I know you mention the grassroots organization at the end that kind of “deprograms” people…
Well, you should contact Hear Yourself Think; it’s run by two incredible people, and they’ll go to your place and they’ll do a presentation for your neighborhood, or they would even go to someone’s house and kind of deprogram people. But it’s a tough one. I’d just say you kind of have to keep at it. They’ll have more advice, and there’s a support group on Facebook for people who’ve lost loved ones to Fox, and we’ll have something like that soon, too, where people can exchange ideas.