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Brainwash: History, Cinema and the Psy Professions

Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image

Brainwash: History, Cinema and the Psy Professions
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Brainwash 1 hour before event starts Free  

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The Hidden Persuaders Project and the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image present:

Brainwash: History, Cinema and the Psy Professions


3-4th July 2015

Workshop Programme

The history of cinema, like the history of psychoanalysis, psychiatry and psychotherapy, percolates with Western suspicions that our minds are susceptible to covert, even unconscious manipulation. Cinema and psychoanalysis—two essential exponents of subjectivity in the twentieth century—have been celebrated as royal roads to the unconscious, catalysts for our dreams, and means of self-discovery and human emancipation. But cinema and psychotherapy, Freudian or otherwise, have also been castigated for their special capacity to tap the unconscious, and as tools for mind control, even as they have depicted and shaped understanding of what it means to have or to manipulate a mind. 


Early cinema had frequently explored the hypnotic processes it was accused of inducing. But the intersecting fears of mind control at the movies and in the consulting room seemingly entered a new stage of complexity with the Cold War. New theoretical and visual languages of ‘brainwashing’ emerged, and the ideas of Pavlov and of Freud were often placed side by side. In the decades after 1950 (the year in which the word ‘brainwashing’ was coined), film further explored subliminal interference. Roles for ‘psy’ experts working for shadowy organisations were to feature, and the dangers of psychological experiment returned again and again. 


Visions of ‘conditioning’ and ‘programming’ resonated on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Work such as Shivers (1981) by the Polish filmmaker Marczewski explored the communist indoctrination of young people. In the West, films such as The Mind Benders (1963), The Ipcress File (1965), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) played upon conjoined political and psychological terrors of brainwashing.  Most famous, ironic, and perhaps most imitated of all works in this tradition was The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Meanwhile, many specialist commentators in the human sciences explored the vulnerability of the ‘captive mind’, considered the psychic effects of ‘totalitarianism’, the nature of induced desires and manufactured anxieties, advertising, not to mention extreme sensory experiences (and deprivation) in shaping behaviour and thought. The limits of an individual—or a group’s—capacity to remember, to will, to know, and to organize were probed; and terms such as ‘regression’ and ‘automatism’ gained a substantial new purchase.


In this workshop we ask whether the Cold War obsession with brainwashing was a break with past narratives and anxieties over mental manipulation and suggestion. We consider how far cinema, television and video have been caught up in this history of hidden or coercive persuasion, and how far they have changed the terms of debate. What forms of human experimentation inspired interest in brainwashing, and vice versa?  And how and why did depictions of automatism on screen so often connect to fears of the ‘psy’ professions?


In addressing these questions we revisit some iconic and obscure brainwashing sagas of the past. By re-examining Cold War films and some of their precursors, we invite discussion of the representation of coercively altered states of consciousness—the dangerous spell that film and 'the talking cure' have been said to exert. We ask: how have ‘suggestion’, ‘hypnosis’, ‘automatism’ and ‘brainwashing’ featured in these stories? What plot lines and visual aesthetics has ‘brainwashing’ inspired? Why did the clinical expert feature so prominently in such films? How and why have fears of brainwashing figured in the critique of the therapeutic encounter? What should we make of the role of hypnosis in the early warnings about the dangers of cinema (and its darkened rooms)?How might we map and historicise such fears and fantasies? Do the same fears recur, the same plots unfold, or do hypnosis and brainwashing play out differently, in Europe and the US, East and West, pre-war and post-war? 



Workshop Timetable

Friday July 3rd

10:00-10:15                 Registration


10:15-10:30                 Welcome


10:30-12:30                 1st Panel

Raymond Bellour (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique): Cinema and Hypnoses: Mabuse as an example

Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck, University of London): From Momism to The Feminine Mystique with a screening of Too Much Momma (2015) by Ian Magor (Birkbeck, University of London)

Chair: Daniel Pick (Birkbeck, University of London)


12:30-1:30                   Lunch


1:30-2:15                     Screening: The Milgram Re-enactment (2002)



2:15-4:00                     2nd Panel

Maya Oppenheimer (Imperial College London) & Rod Dickinson (University of

West England):  Re-enacting Obedience: laboratory on film

Jelena Martinovic (Geneva University of Art and Design): Depatterning desire: Aversion therapy on film

Chair: Matt ffytche (University of Essex)


4:00-4:30                     Break


4:30-6:00                     3rd Panel

Laura Marcus (University of Oxford): Flicker

Marcie Holmes (Birkbeck, University of London): Flickering lights: mind control on screen

Chair: Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck, University of London)



7:30                             Screening The Mind Benders (1963)



Saturday July 4th


10:00-10:15                 Registration


10:15-10:30                 Introduction


10:30-12:30                 1st Panel

Daniel Pick (Birkbeck, University of London): Suddenly: Some thoughts about assasination at the cinema

Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge): Manchurian Automata

Chair:John Forrester (University of Cambridge)


12:30-1:30                   Lunch


1:30-2:00                     Screening: The Ipcress Sound (2015), War Cry (2015) by Ian Magor (Birkbeck, University of London)


2:00-3:30                     2nd Panel

Erik Linstrum (University of Virginia): Interrogating The Interrogator: Cyprus, the BBC, and the performance of violence

Gavin Collinson (BBC) Brainwashing on the Box: Depictions of brainwashing on British TV

Chair: Lyndsey Stonebridge (University of East Anglia)


3:30-4:00                     Break


4:00-5:30                     3rd Panel                                                                     

Ana Antic (Birkbeck, University of London): Cinema and education: Building the new communist person

Ian Christie (Birkbeck, University of London): The Soviet story: From interrogation to confession

Chair:Rebecca Reich (University of Cambridge)


5:30-6:00                     Closing remarks


6:00                             Reception in the Keynes Library


Do you have questions about Brainwash: History, Cinema and the Psy Professions? Contact Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image

When & Where

Birkbeck Cinema
43 Gordon Square
WC1H 0PD London
United Kingdom


Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image

Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) is a response to the growing interest in film and the moving image across the College. Through public events and academic research initiatives, BIMI will address a wide variety of contemporary issues, particularly those relevant to its interdisciplinary structure.  Working closely with the Birkbeck Cinema, BIMI programmes public screenings and special seasons, making use of 35 mm film in addition to the Cinema’s high quality DVD projection.

We will be running a busy calendar of events from research seminars to film screenings. Please check these pages for further details in the coming weeks.

BIMI is funded across three schools at Birkbeck: the School of Arts, School of Law, and School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy.  The University of Pittsburgh is also a partner and co-funder.

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