The power of story, and people (and groups of people) can get put into “boxes”.

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An Intro to Watching Movies as Therapy

I love going to the movies, don’t you!? Movies make you feel things. “Who has not walked out of a movie theatre feeling sad, scared, inspired, or otherwise moved? Movies can potentially open a person’s eyes to new solutions to any number of difficulties. … They might offer hope, provide role models, and reframe problems” (from goodtherapy.org).

Hmm. Kinda sounds like counselling, doesn’t it?

This post marks an introduction to an upcoming blog series on “Cinematherapy” (or movie therapy). In the series, I will be recommending and reviewing a different movie each time. The only rule: the plot or theme of each movie will touch on something related to relationships, mental health and/or social issues.

I’m excited! Okay, let’s get started … (if you have come to this post just to see the directions how to watch a movie mindfully, please scroll down).

Background

The term cinematherapy has been used since the 1990’s, and is a close cousin of “bibliotherapy”. (Books make you feel things too!) According to Segen’s Medical Dictionary, “Cinematherapy can be a catalyst for healing and growth for those who are open to learning how movies affect people and to watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

Read those last words again. “… those who are open to … watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

How the heck do you do that?

Dr Birgit Wolz, a current guru in this field, acknowledges that it is easy to get caught up in the entertainment and forget to watch mindfully. She answers one viewer’s question: “What you are saying about movies is true for life in general. We often get “caught up” in things and become conscious only later when we look back. … Like in real life, your conscious awareness will increase and decrease at times. Learning to have control over this will benefit you greatly in life.”

Back in the mid-1990’s, I was a Drug Prevention Worker at a high school in northern BC. I didn’t know there was such a thing as cinematherapy, but I knew that teens liked watching movies! So I organized groups where they could come watch movies related to problem drug and alcohol use. When choosing the movies (before Netflix and Youtube) I looked for stories which were relevant to their lives. I also created suggested lists they could take home and use. My hope was that I could engage them in honest conversation about substance abuse, rather than teaching remote facts that did not connect with their everyday experiences.

How Can Cinematherapy Help?

While the research is still ongoing, here is a summary of what I and the current practitioners in the field believe:

  1. Watching a movie (or talking about a movie) with someone you don’t know very well can help build a rapport. It is an easy way to build a connection with someone (including your counsellor).
  2. How you respond to a character or a plot point in a movie can help you learn about yourself. Because talking about the movie is less threatening than talking about yourself, it’s a “way in” to the stuff you may find quite challenging otherwise. This helps to strengthen self-awareness. (*Note: most of the reflections questions below are designed to help in this area.)
  3. Talking about a movie with someone that you otherwise experience communication challenges with can help to build your communication skills.
  4. You’ve heard about feeling better after “a good cry”. Watching movies that make us laugh or cry can provide a cathartic emotional release. This can be a useful first step to therapy or counselling.
  5. Movies show us what is going on behind a character’s surface. We learn something about “why” they behave as they do. As viewers, we go along for the ride, walking beside them on a part of their journey. All of this helps to generate an empathic response – something we need a little more of in our everyday lives.
  6. Movies fight shame and stigma when they are about the lives of people who are marginalized or otherwise invisible. The recent popularity of transgender individuals in Hollywood is one example.

How to Watch a Movie with Mindful Awareness

Before you begin, find a comfortable spot. Pause. Take a moment to notice your breathing. It should be easy, and natural. Don’t force it. Do a quick body scan. Then if you notice any spots where you feel stress or tightness, acknowledge them. Dr Wolz writes, “Let your breath travel into these spots. To release tension you may experiment with ‘breathing into’ any part of your body that feels strained.” For now, set your judgements aside.

While watching, pay attention both to the movie and to your own physiological reactions. Observe whatever is happening – whether your heart is speeding up, or the pace of your breathing is changing. Do your best not to judge or analyze. Just “be fully present with your experience”.

The following are questions that cinematherapy.com suggests you ask yourself when the movie is finished. If you like, it can be useful to record your answers.

  1. Do you remember whether your breathing changed throughout the movie? Could this be an indication that something threw you off balance? In all likelihood, what affects you in the film is similar to whatever unbalances you in your daily life.
  2. Ask yourself: If a part of the film that moved you (positively or negatively) had been one of your dreams, how would you have understood the symbolism in it?
  3. Notice what you liked and what you didn’t like or even hated about the movie. Which characters or actions seemed especially attractive or unattractive to you? Did you identify with one or several characters? 
  4. Were there one or several characters in the movie that modelled behaviour that you would like to emulate? Did they develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like to develop as well? 
  5. Notice whether any aspect of the film was especially hard to watch. Could this be related to something that you might have repressed (“shadow”)? Uncovering repressed aspects of our psyche can free up positive qualities and uncover our more whole and authentic self.
  6. Did you experience something that connected you to your inner wisdom or higher self as you watched the film?

I have to give grateful credit for these instructions as they have come from Dr Birgit Wolz, at www.cinematherapy.com. Although I struggled a bit with the layout, what a gold mine of content her website is! (She has in turn based portions of these instructions on Sinetar, Marsha (1993) Reel Power & Spiritual Growth Through Film. Ligouri, MO: Triumph Books.)

Finally … A Warning

Cinematherapy is an “add-on” therapy, much like art, music, or dance therapy. Similarly, it can be used as a self-help technique or with a counsellor. However, our problems show up in a spectrum. Self-help can be useful for problems that do not require a counsellor, but sometimes other expert eyes can be useful. If the problem is more severe, do not use cinematherapy in place of a trained counsellor!

The questions for reflection above encourage you to open yourself up to those uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that you might be closed off from. But watch out for negative triggers! Sometimes it can be too much. Make sure you have access to emotional support if necessary. If you end up feeling overwhelmed, is there someone you can talk to about it? (Or even get a hug from?)

Finally, there are no known contraindications for cinematherapy among most people. However, it is not advisable or helpful if there is a history of psychosis.

Further Reading

E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lovers Guide to Healing and Transformation Birgit Wolz (2005)

Rent Two Films and Let’s talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies as Psychotherapy John W. Hesley; Jan G. Hesley (2001)

Advanced Cinematherapy: the Girl’s Guide to Finding Happiness One Movie at a Time Nancy Peske; Beverly West (2000)

The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call me in the Morning Gary Solomon (1995)