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Documentary explores effects of political commentary on behavior

March 12, 2016

In this rather unorthodox political season, the timing of the of a new documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad” should certainly provide particular resonance. Slated to screen at the Milton Theater at 8 p.m., Friday, March 18, it is filmmaker Jen Senko’s deeply personal journey into the mind of her father, who seemed to be adversely influenced by the influx of politically charged talk radio chatter that flooded his car during a lengthy daily commute.

The Kickstarter-funded film was launched in 2013, but after receiving an outpouring from those with similar stories to tell, the film began to grow in scope. And while Senko holds Fox News in its crosshairs throughout, “Brainwashing” takes on the further-reaching goal of charting the de-evolution of discourse in the media and the various steps since the ‘60s to manipulate, obfuscate and generally control the political narrative in the public arena.

Senko begins the film with halcyon home movies of the father she remembered growing up in ‘60 suburban bliss. Senko describes her father as a rather apolitical Democrat who never uttered a disparaging word about any particular race, loved animals and was kind-hearted and well loved. It wasn’t until a job change that led to a lengthier car commute that Senko and other family members started to notice a change in her father’s behavior. He became a hair-trigger angry, belligerent man who would rather trust the words of his conservative talk show hosts rather than overwhelming factual evidence.

Senko peppers the film with others who share similar stories of having noticed a change in family members after prolonged exposure to one-sided political commentary. Instead of merely commiserating, she interviews a host of educators, historians, and neuroscientists who examine the effects from all angles: Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, former Fox commentator Jeff Cohen and author Claire Conner all provide insight and perspective on this media manipulation, from the well-calculated origins to its far-reaching consequences.

Perhaps the most fascinating (and frightening) aspect of the film is when Senko looks at the clinical aspects of the effects on the mind. The title evokes forced “Clockwork Orange”-style information sessions, but the description of the casual eroding effects that can occur under the right conditions (isolated in a car with agitated voices mixed with fear) is unnerving.

Senko, director of the award-winning “The Vanishing City,” receives a polished voiceover from actor Matthew Modine and some engaging animation from celebrated artist Bill Plympton, but it's her film’s exhaustive breadth that is perhaps its most solid component. In fact, it could be quite easy to tack on some of our most current televised debates as DVD extras or postscripts to the film’s narrative.

Tickets for the March 18 screening are $10 and will be available at the box office.