The Transformational Power of
Film – Using Movies in Therapy
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Since I have been working with my clients’
responses to movies as a therapeutic modality, they often tell me
that they came away from a theater or TV screen filled with emotions,
insights and inspiration. In my work with individuals, couples and
groups, I’ve found that having clients watch certain films
with conscious awareness has helped them reflect on their inner
process — their struggles as well as accomplishments
My own connection with cinema therapy began
during a seminar about using metaphors from movies to understand
emotional issues. I became inspired to learn more about the impact
of films on the psyche and their use to support the therapeutic
In cinema therapy, clients are guided to use
the psychological effects of film imagery, plot, music, etc. for
insight, inspiration, emotional release or relief and natural change.
This therapeutic modality is an innovative method based on traditional
therapeutic principles, and on bibliotherapy, which has been practiced
since the 1930s. Before I explain this further I want to mention
a couple of clinical examples.
In one case, a woman I’ll call “Fran”
had made much progress in our work. Her depression had lifted and
we started discussing terminating her therapy. During that time
she arrived at one session very distraught. Unexpectedly she had
been laid off from her job, the company was downsizing. Fran didn’t
really like her job but was very attached to her co-workers. Leaving
her workplace in an upset state of mind, she caused an auto accident
in which she was slightly injured. These unfortunate events triggered
a lot of self-criticism and grief about disconnecting from her co-workers
as well as about her injury.
First we did some cognitive restructuring of
Fran’s negative beliefs about herself that were reactivated
by these events. When I explained the grief process, Fran could
not imagine ever “coming out at the other end”. I suggested
she watch the movie Frida and gave her specific guidelines (see
www.cinematherapy.com). Frida shows how the Mexican painter Frida
Kahlo faced many big challenges with strength and courage throughout
her life. The artist was able to let her pain transform her as it
led her to create outstanding art, which in return helped her cope.
I encouraged Fran to “step inside Frida’s shoes”
when she watched the film at home.
The film touched Fran deeply and allowed her
to open up to new possibilities for herself. Aided by the
emotional impact of the movie and the “modeling”
provided by the character of Frida, I guided Fran through
the following four stages of understanding and integration:
- The seed for strength and hope lies in the acceptance
of her limitations;
- Tiny acts of courage can start to put her back in control
of her life;
- Responding with determination to each element in the
struggle nourishes hope;
- Out of all this grows new strength, a new sense of self,
new compassion, and a new sense of a strong purpose in her
As a result of this work Fran moved through
her grief process, gained her confidence back and rediscovered her
passion for photography. She had been trained in this field but
was never able to apply it. By the time her emotional and physical
wounds were healed she found work that allowed her to integrate
her skills in photography.
A second case involves a client I’ll
call “Terry”. She came to her first session presenting
low self-esteem as her main problem. After we talked about her upbringing
in a highly critical environment we started working with her “Inner
Critic” and cognitive distortions. Terry was so identified
with these internalized messages that it was hard for her to fully
see the distortions. She could not imagine a different perspective.
At this point I suggested she watch the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
In this comedy the main character Toula transforms herself from
an “ugly duckling” into an attractive, successful woman.
Besides my general guidelines on how to watch a film
with conscious awareness, I also provided Terry with the following
specific questions to answer after watching the film:
- Focus on the movie with conscious awareness;
- Ask yourself whether the perspective of Toula, who thought
negatively about herself, was distorted;
- Can you name any of the cognitive distortions?;
- How was this character able to let go of self-doubts?;
- Imagine yourself as Toula when she lets go of her negative
- What thoughts about yourself are dropping away? How does
this feel? How do you see yourself and your environment
As Terry followed this process and stayed with
the questions during our next sessions she was able to understand
and consequently disidentify from her negative self-image. Theoretical
These case examples show that I draw from multiple
theoretical psychotherapeutic orientations as I integrate the use
of film in my work. 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 therapeutic effect of films can be
explained by different theories.
Since films are metaphors, the depth psychologist
can utilize movies in therapy similar to the way in which he might
use stories, myths, fables, or dreams. Identifying with a character
can help clients develop ego strength as they recall forgotten inner
resources. As clients identify with a film character they see their
own situation unfold. This brings to life issues they previously
wanted to avoid. Understanding reactions to characters that are
“different” and unlikable can guide the client to discover
in the “shadow” of their own psyche their true self
and their potential.
In cognitive 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. The cognitive effect can
be explained through recent theories of learning and creativity.
They suggest that we have seven “intelligences”, which
can be engaged by watching movies: 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).
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 response 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
- Start with a film that your client has already
seen and that supports your treatment goal. If no appropriate
movie comes to mind use the literature, which offers movie recommendations
for specific psychological problems
- Clarify your intent when assigning a film in
which a client might mistake the role identification.
Discuss positive and negative reactions to film. Use material
according to your theoretical orientation. Some evocative questions
- How did the movie touch you, positively or negatively?
- If the film had a unique message for you, what
- What new ideas for new behaviors did the movie
- Did you experience something that connected
you with health and wholeness, your inner wisdom or higher self
as you watched the film?
- What other films can you identify that might
take the discussion a step further?
More detailed guidelines and a bibliography
can be found on the web at www.cinematherapy.com
wrote a continuing education on-line course "Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process",
which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy. She also co-authored the
on-line course "Boundaries
and the Movies: Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries Through the Movies".
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses for mental health practitioners:
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. This course serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
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