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Cinema Therapy

In the last year I have watched a couple of movies that affected me significantly. I fell into an existential funk after watching Motorcycle Diaries that made me feel like a “middle class sellout.” As I was emerging from the funk, I happened to watch The Constant Gardener, which takes place in Kenya. Kenya was my old stomping ground, where I was a fish researcher determined to save the third world from starvation, but barely survived my naiveté and grandiosity. These two movies have launched me into deep questioning about the direction and the meaning of my life.

Most of us, and most of our clients, have similar stories of movies that have deeply impacted us. This clinical update is about how we, as therapists, can harness the power of movies to help our clients grow and change. Appreciating the power of movies, I also thought that an online course on Cinema Therapy, developed by Dr. Birgit Wolz, a pioneer and top expert in the field of Cinema Therapy, would be an exciting addition to our innovative online courses.

Guidelines: Cinema Therapy (CT):
  • Movies affect most of us powerfully because the synergistic impact of images, music, dialogue, lighting, camera angles, sound and special effects can elicit deep feelings and help us reflect on our lives.
  • Movies can help us to better understand our lives, provide catharsis or perspective and may suggest new ways of thinking, feeling and pursuing our lives.
  • In Cinema Therapy (CT) clients learn to watch movies consciously and reflectively and to pay attention to the story and to themselves. Clients then learn to understand themselves and others more objectively in the big “movie” of their lives.
  • Clients who hold their feelings back by over-intellectualizing may find it easier to let go of their defenses and access feelings that arise during and after watching a movie.
  • Conscious watching of films can enhance perspective, insight and empathy.
  • Movies have been successfully employed in conjunction with depth psychotherapy, cognitive, humanistic-existential, feminist and narrative therapy, hypnotherapy, psycho-education, EMDR and systems-oriented therapies.
  • CT can be incorporated into individual, couples, family and group therapy.
  • CT can help with assessment: In addition to the standard biographical questioning, clients may be asked to name a few films they have found to be personally meaningful and explain why they found them of importance.
  • Client resistance can dissolve because: 1. Clients become curious when the therapist suggests that they watch a movie, especially if they don’t expect this kind of intervention. 2. Rapport develops faster and is stronger because movies speak a language that is familiar and less intimidating than psychological jargon. 3. Watching and discussing a movie can help clients to see their situation from a bird’s eye perspective. 4. Movies can demonstrate behavior change, enabling clients to envision how their own problems might be solved.
  • Some suggestions for client viewing are: 1. Watch certain movies at the theatre or at home. 2. Watch certain clips during a session (on a laptop or DVD Screen). 3. Watch an entire movie with a client during a longer scheduled session.
  • More information: Much more information is available in the 80 page document that composed the online course.
Examples of how CT can be used:
  • Addictions: Leaving Las Vegas (1995) demonstrates how addiction can ruin a life when untreated. Postcards From the Edge (1990) and 28 Days (2000) demonstrate how addictions can be successfully overcome, even though the recovery process is challenging.
  • Trauma: Clients can get in touch with and successfully process unresolved trauma through such movies as Affliction (1997) and Mystic River (2003).
  • Depression: Movies, such as About Schmidt (2002), can serve as a psycho-educational tool in cognitive work with depression.
  • Grief: In America (2003) is an excellent for clients who tend to hold back emotions while grieving. Frida (2002) demonstrates courage, determination, endurance, acceptance and the potential for transformation.