Life at the Movies – The Art of Cinema Therapy

Life at the Movies – The Art of Cinema Therapy

More and more counselors are turning the American past time movies into an effective therapeutic tool. I personally incorporated the use of Cinema Therapy with clients informally more than five years ago. Within the past two years, however, I have begun to use it more consistently as an adjunctive form of service when planning treatment. Movies deal with a range of life issues that are appropriate for all ages, cultures, and backgrounds. In the ongoing debate does life emulate the movies or do movies emulate real life? One thing is clear: Movies address many of our common problems. Some very practical answers and life choices are provided in the 90 to 180 minute reel. Therefore, movies often give clients insight into their own lives.

After seeing Field of Dreams in 1989, If you build it, they will come became my slogan for the year. Those words of inspiration and hope gave me encouragement to step out in faith and accomplish many goals. I am sure I have seen the film over 20 times and every time is like the first. I was flooded with emotion. The list of things I needed to build filled by mind. Sitting in that dark theater, tears streamed down my face as I identified the many things I wanted to do but was afraid to take the risk. I slipped past my friend, stepped into the aisle, rushed to the back of the theater, and cried like a baby. Periodically, I rent the video to remind me to follow my heart, to hear the voice within, and to forge ahead. The movie had an awesome healing effect. As clients connect with various characters, they are able to identify similarities to and differences from their own stories. This is often a great bridge from the reel to the real.

People Are Watching Movies: Cinema is a global phenomenon, seen by millions of people throughout the world. It has a powerful Impact, consciously or unconsciously, on the behavior of people. A 1993 Variety magazine survey reported that world box office receipts totaled $8 billion, and that home video rental is also a lucrative business. Of the top-earning 100 films, 88 were U.S. productions. We go to the movies for different reasons: some for the magic, others for the meaning. Movies can provide entertainment or a temporary escape from our reality. They can be relaxing or exciting, and for many, they have become a way to cope. As therapists and counselors, we can tap into these easily accessible and readily available old_resources.

What Is Cinema Therapy?
Cinema Therapy is the use of movies (current releases or videos) by counselors as a therapeutic tool in the healing process of clients. It is not a discipline requiring specialized training, such as art or music therapy. It should, however, be done by a mental health practitioner skilled at processing a clients cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses. Depending on the client, the concept may be introduced formally or informally at two different points during treatment. The first opportunity comes during the initial assessment when gathering historical data. Most new clients usually indicate behavioral changes (especially in leisure activities). At this time I ask, What do you do for entertainment? Or Do you like movies? This is also a way of establishing rapport with the client. I briefly share my interest in movies, their positive therapeutic value, and that other clients have benefited from the experience. The second opportunity to introduce Cinema Therapy is when the client discusses information that reminds the counselor of a particular film or video. I share some of the similarities in the storyline, viewpoints/mindsets, and suggest that the client view it. Then we plan to discuss his or her reaction at the next session.

Life Is longer Than the Movies: Though the worlds of life and fiction have similarities, they are also very different. Movies often cover a continuum of development from infancy to adulthood. Realizing that movies can cover an entire lifetime in approximately two hours, clients should be cautioned that solutions may take longer to implement than they do to watch. The real world does not always come neatly packaged. We do not know what will finally happen in our own lives. We can, however, become interested in fictional characters, find out what happens to them, and gain insight for our own problem resolution. Clients are usually capable of pointing out how someone else should have handled a situation. They will then go on to explain what they would have done differently. Movies serve as catalysts that stimulate discussion leading to transparency and disclosure.

From the Reel To the Real: When clients view movies they draw comparisons with their real-world knowledge of human behaviors and what seems to be a plausible, likely, or consistent response by a person in a given situation. If a client decides the actors emotions in the film are appropriate and convincing, given the narrative circumstances, he or she may be able to share in the characters emotions by way of empathy. Clients also engage in a complex set of evaluations about the moral and ethical acceptability of a characters screen behavior and sequence of events. As a result of their disclosure, you will be able to determine strengths and weaknesses in how the individual processes information as well as his or her ability to abstract, reason, and gather insights. When a client is viewing a movie for use in Cinema Therapy, there are several categories that may be used as catalysts to get the person thinking about his or her own issues. Five are mentioned here: Listen for one-liners (e.g., There is no place like home Wizard of Oz; You can’t handle the truth A Few Good Men; Make my day Dirty Harry; May the force be with you Star Wars). Look for themes (e.g., confronting your fears, taking revenge, getting a new start in life, extending forgiveness). Observe relational dynamics (e.g., obsessive-compulsive, codependency, poor boundaries). Identify significant issues (abuse, anxiety, marriage, chronic illness). Give each film the Bible test by asking, does the movie demonstrate a violation or application of Scripture?

Assigning Movies as Homework: If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the value of a movie. When movies are assigned as homework, the counselor should have a clear objective. Ask yourself, what do I hope to accomplish with my client through this film? Cinema Therapy is not just watching movies but viewing with a specific purpose. Selected movies should address issues (Figure 1) that clients are facing or be based on their areas of interest (e.g., action, drama, romance, comedy, western, science fiction, fairy-tale, etc.). Counselors should be cautioned that the movie rating system (G General Audience, PG Parental Guidance, PG-13Suitable for adolescents, R Restricted/no one under 18 admitted without pare not or guardian) does not always accurately reflect the content of a movie. Make sure you watch the movie first and advise your client of material that may be objectionable or offensive (e.g., profanity, nudity, graphic violence). Sound judgment should be used. Again, ask yourself, Is the film clinically, spiritually, and age appropriate? Clients may view a first-run movie at a local theater or rent a home video. There are advantages to both venues.

At the theater, they have wide-screen viewing and no intermissions (interruptions). Advantages of home video include the ability to pause and replay certain scenes as well as viewing in the privacy and comfort of home. Whichever venue your clients choose, ask them to complete a Movie Review Sheet (Figure 2). Beyond the obvious, clients may be moved by a variety of subtleties in the film. Be prepared to deal with concepts a client may identify that you did not intend to address. Clients may also view the film and not want to discuss it. No pressure should be applied to make something happen. Documented information from the Movie Review Sheet can be used in a later session. If the client has seen the movie, he or she has been Impacted (positively or negatively). Reality Sets In The Case of Caroline In the practice of Cinema Therapy, I have found that Reality-Based, Rational-Emotive, and Behavioral approaches are most effective. This does not limit the use of other theoretical orientations as preferred by some counselors. Below is a brief synopsis of a case using a reality-based therapeutic intervention in conjunction with Cinema Therapy.

Caroline is a 38-year-old mother of three girls between the ages of 5 and 10. She is recently divorced from a physically, verbally, and spiritually abusive narcissistic, bipolar man. During one of our sessions, Caroline was discussing how her spouse was both impulsive and obsessive. Several things she said reminded me of the film, As Good As It Gets. Prior to sharing the similarities, I asked if she had seen the film and her view on it. To my surprise, she had hated the movie (I have seen it five or six times and recommended it to several other clients). It was a great moment. Caroline became angry as she shared how unrealistic the movie seemed. She was concerned that Helen Hunts character would marry Jack Nicholson’s character because he was charming but that she could forget about his character flaws. Then Helen would end up like Caroline, 10 years later, wondering how she had missed the obvious signs of dysfunction. As a result of domestic violence, Caroline suffers from low self-esteem and severe depression. This was first time she had voiced a strong opinion about anything. We discussed the questions from the Movie Review Sheet right then in session. This opened a door through which we could work more effectively. Caroline was not angry with the movie, but with herself for poor judgment and wrong choices. Because she felt embarrassed and ashamed of her situation, she had withdrawn from others (even those who cared about her well-being).

The film helped Caroline acknowledge that although she had been deeply hurt, she needed to connect with people in order to heal. At the same time, she needed to establish new patterns of relating. She was also challenged to answer the question, What if this is as good as it gets? Caroline began to evaluate her current reality and ask additional questions, such as Who am I? What have I learned from my past experiences that can help me in the present? What do I want from life? What do I want from relationships? Will my present behavior help me accomplish my desired goals? What am I willing to change? Over the course of treatment, Caroline began to accept personal responsibility for her life and to make a plan. She is learning to venture out and trust her new found insights. Find a therapist to get solutions to your problems.

Whereas Cinema Therapy can be used with a wide range of clients, it is not recommended for those with serious psychiatric disorders. Counselors should be aware that watching certain actions in a film may cause clients to relive their pain. Be sensitive. Instead of assigning movies as homework, film clips (5 to 10 minutes) can be viewed in session. Then content can be processed Immediately. Cinema Therapy is an underutilized intervention that I believe will increase in popularity as its application and effectiveness is better understood. Our lives can be viewed as one long movie without an intermission. Consider the storyline of The Truman Show. Meeting a new client is like coming in on the middle of a movie. It sometimes takes a while to figure out what’s going on, even when the client provides flashbacks. Using Cinema Therapy is a way for counselors to engage clients in nonthreatening ways as they share the plots of their stories.