Cinematherapy - Using the Power of Movies
for the Therapeutic Process
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
My connection with cinematherapy began during a seminar
I attended about using metaphors from movies to understand emotional
issues. During the workshop, another participant mentioned a study
that got my attention. It purported that more people experience
relief from symptoms of trauma by watching films than through
I had to admit that many times in watching films,
I'd had powerful experiences that made it easy to believe the
study might be true. I was also reminded of the experiences related
to me by many of my clients. I wanted to learn more about the
impact of movies on the psyche and using films to support the
therapeutic process. Now I use cinematherapy as a therapeutic
modality in my work with individual clients as well as in a cinematherapy
group. In talking to colleagues I learned that the practice of
using clients' responses to movies has spread, and now, more and
more therapists recognize the value of cinematherapy as a therapeutic
Why cinematherapy works
Watching a movie with conscious awareness can be
similar to experiencing a guided visualization. The therapeutic
effect and the theoretical basis for both modalities are therefore
closely related. In fact, the use of films in therapy allows us
to draw from multiple theoretical psychotherapeutic orientations.
Films are metaphors that can be utilized in therapy similar to
stories, myths, jokes, fables, or even dreams. In cognitive-behavior
therapy movies are used in combination with the established modalities
of this field. Films can fulfill the role of a supportive device
for understanding maladaptive core beliefs and for cognitive restructuring.
Cognitive insights tell clients what to do but affective insights
give them the motivation to follow through. Behavior modification
treatment can be supported by watching movies where a character
demonstrates courage in face of a challenge. The client becomes
motivated to copy the behavior seen on screen and is more open
to successfully undergo treatments such as "exposure with behavior
avoidance prevention". Systems oriented therapists can find support
for their approach by choosing movies that communicate unfamiliar
concepts of family systems and their dynamics as well as communication
Identifying with a character can help clients develop
ego strength as they recall forgotten inner resources and become
aware of the right opportunity for those resources to be applied.
As clients identify with a film character they see their own issues
unfold. This brings to life issues they previously wanted to avoid.
Viewing characters in combination with the subsequent reflection
in individual or group therapy allows clients to process their
feelings with a sense of increased safety. Understanding
reactions to characters, who are "different" and unlikable can
guide the client to discover in the "shadow" of their own psyche
and story their true self and their potential. Watching movies
at home in this context serves as a bridge between therapy and
The cognitive effect can be explained through recent
theories of learning and creativity, which suggest that we have
seven "intelligences". The more of these intelligences we access,
the faster we learn because they employ different methods of information
processing. Watching movies can engage all seven of them: the
logical (plot), the linguistic (dialogs), the visual-spatial (pictures,
colors, symbols), the musical (sounds and music), the interpersonal
(storytelling), the kinesthetic (moving), and the intrapsychic
(inner guidance). In addition films galvanize feelings, which
increase the probability that clients will carry out new and desired
Identifying with a character can help clients to
develop ego strength as they recall forgotten inner resources
and become aware of the right opportunity for those resources
to be applied. Understanding reactions to characters who are "different"
and unlikable can guide the client to discover in the "shadow"
of their own psyche and story their true self and their potential.
Watching movies at home in this context serves as a bridge between
therapy and life.
illustrate, here are two examples from my own practice. The names have been changed
in order to protect the client's confidentiality. I'll begin with
"Sally." She arrived at our session confused and worried.
The night before she had become angry with her boyfriend and yelled
at him. Now, she said, she felt bad about it because she saw that
the small mistake he had made didn't justify her acting out this
way. The real reason for her reaction was her hurt about his plans
to leave then next morning on a fishing trip with his buddies
for a couple of weeks. Sally felt excluded and abandoned.
As we explored this, Sally came to understand that
her anger was a way for her to push him away by defending against
her vulnerability and fear of abandonment. She sensed it would
help her to tell him about these feelings when he returned, but
she was too "afraid to look stupid," she told me. "It would make
me feel too weak. He might take advantage of my vulnerability,
criticize me, see me as needy, and push me away. Then I would
feel even worse."
In the process of working with this, Sally began
to understand that these beliefs might be based on projections.
But a significant shift in that understanding didn't happen until
she viewed a movie I suggested: "Sliding Doors" (starring Gweneth
Paltrow). I asked her to focus specifically on the combination
of strength and vulnerability that the main character, Helen,
displays when she meets James again on the street and expresses
her interest in him even though she is not sure whether he is
still interested in her. James responds with emotional openness
too and they develop a close relationship from this point on.
When Sally came back for her next session she remarked
that, "Helen looked like she put herself out on a limb. She
looked not weak at all. In fact, she seemed kind of courageous
and strong allowing herself to be so open and emotionally vulnerable."
Sally was able to internalize Helen's courage: "I can see
myself as Helen. What Helen can do, I could do too." First
Sally was able to understand more clearly how she had been projecting.
She recognized the good-hearted nature of her boyfriend. Then
Sally saw the opportunity to experience more emotional closeness
if she allowed herself to be vulnerable with him. We discussed
that at times of emotional stress she usually is not in touch
with her strength and courage and the means by which she can access
them. Through watching and discussing this movie scene, it sank
in consciously for Sally that she already carried these qualities
inside her. It's my belief that without the aid of the movie,
it would have been much harder for Sally to recognize this capacity
A second example from my practice involves "Alice."
She had worked with her grief over the pending end of her marriage
for quiet a while. When she came to her session one day, she told
me she had had another big fight with her husband because she
felt very oppressed by him again. For a long time he had been
her "main purpose in life." Now it became clear to her that her
marriage was over. She had tried for a long time to make it work.
During the session she cried a lot and felt some relief. After
a while she said, "I believe that something good will come out
of this but I can't be sure". I told her that many movies have
been made that begin in despair and end in triumph. If she could
identify with characters, trapped in their circumstances, and
share their disappointments as well as their unsteady steps toward
liberation, she could start finding reason for optimism in her
own situation. This could help her gain the courage to do what
is necessary to change her situation.
I encouraged her to let a film inspire her to learn
how to survive her loss without succumbing to it, possibly coming
out of it transformed. I suggested several movies and asked Alice
to choose a film that had touched her when she seen it before.
It was not crucial that the plot matched her situation exactly
as long as a character was going through this kind of transformation.
Alice chose the Alan Alda film, "The Four Seasons." Throughout
the next sessions we addressed the following themes going back
and forth between her process and a scene or a character in the
movie that had inspired her: acceptance and compassion with herself
and her grief, small acts of courage despite fear (such as reaching
out to friends and joining a divorce support group), determination
and endurance, and transformation. Alice started to enjoy her
newly gained freedom after her separation. She discovered new
strength and compassion. She got in touch with a sense of autonomy
and new purpose.
Guidelines for watching movies with conscious
The following is a set of guidelines I give to my
clients and group members who want to use movies for healing and
growth. I begin by encouraging them to adapt the techniques to
suit their own personal style as they progress. I tell them:
In preparation for each viewing session, sit comfortably.
Let your attention move effortlessly, without strain, first to
your body then to your breath. Simply inhale and exhale naturally.
Follow your breath in this innocent, watchful way for a while.
Notice any tension or holding. As you grow aware of them, let
your breath travel into these spots. To release tension you may
experiment with "breathing into" any part of your body that feels
strained. Never force your breath.
Your gentle attention is sufficient to help you become
more present and balanced, as it spontaneously deepens and corrects
your breathing if it is constricted. Experience your condition
without inner criticizing or comment. If you notice yourself judging
or narrating, simply listen to the tone of your inner dialog as
you come back to your breath. Lay judgments and worries consciously
As soon as you are calm and centered, start watching
the movie. Most deeper insights arrive when you pay attention
to the story and to yourself. While viewing, bring your
inner attention to a holistic bodily awareness (felt sense). This
means you are aware of "all of you" - head, heart, belly, etc.
Once in a while you might notice your breathing from an inner
vantage point - from your subtle, always-present intuitive core.
Observe how the movie images, ideas, conversations and characters
affect your breath. Don't analyze anything while you are watching.
Be fully present with your experience.
Afterwards reflect on the following:
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.
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?
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?
Were there one or several characters in the movie
that modeled behavior that you would like to emulate? Did they
develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like
to develop as well?
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 positive qualities of our whole
and authentic self.
Did you experience something that connected you to
your inner wisdom or higher self as you watched the film?
It helps to write down your answers.
The reasons why watching movies with conscious awareness
can work therapeutically are the following: The unconscious communicates
its content to our conscious mind mostly in symbolic images. We
can become aware of this "communication" through dreams and active
imagination, which are "windows" to the unconscious: both convert
the invisible forms of the unconscious into images that are perceptible
to the conscious mind. Feeling moved by a movie scene shows that
they symbolically reflect relevant unconscious material. We are
interested in learning about the unconscious because it often
is in conflict with our conscious ideas, intentions and goals.
Exploring the effect of a movie on us can therefore break down
the barriers between the two levels of the psyche and set up a
genuine flow of communication between them. Unconscious material
can start to become more conscious. This helps us to resolve some
of our neurotic conflicts with the unconscious, and thus to learn
more about who we really are as authentic human beings. We learn
to respond to life's challenges and changes more successfully
from a more present and authentic inner place instead of reacting
from old dysfunctional emotional and behavior patterns.
If some of the mentioned guidelines turn out to be
useful, you might consider using them not only in "reel life"
but also adapt them to "real life" because they are intended to
make you become a better observer. As observing helps you to "step
back", the bigger picture becomes more obvious. This way, watching
screen movies helps you learn to understand yourself and others
more deeply in the "big movie" of your life. You develop a skill
to see yourself and the world more objectively, and less through
a rigid, judgmental, or emotional filter (projection).
More detailed guidelines and
a bibliography can be found on other pages.
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy