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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA




Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Dogwalker

Director: Jacques Thelemaque
Producers: Hilary Six, Linda Miller, Diane Gaidry, Toni-Ann Parker, David Diaan
Screenwriter: Jacques Thelemaque
Cast: Diane Gaidry, Pam Gordon, Lyn Vaus, Lisa Jane Persky, Alan Gelfant, John Nielsen, Kerry Bishop, Alan DeSatti
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2002


Dogs have it better than some humans in this movie. The pets enjoy a pampered existence, while those who get paid to exercise them live marginally on the fringes of Los Angeles.

The Dogwalker follows the moving, transformational journey of Ellie Moore who crosses the continent from Buffalo, New York, to Los Angeles to escape from her abusive boyfriend. When she arrives, Ellie is promptly robbed of all her possessions and reduced to living on the streets. After a failed attempt at prostitution, she wakes up in a public park and meets Betsy, an older, genuinely eccentric, misanthropic, but talented professional dog-walker. It turns out that Betsy needs some help as well, and Ellie becomes her apprentice.

The relationship between the cranky old dog-walker and her unstable new helper proves the catalyst for the emotional journey Ellie must undertake. In Betsy, she finds a mirror of herself - a lonely, angry, complex woman whose own troubled past proves disturbingly close to her own. The women slowly learn that they have more in common than they first realized. Ellie discovers that Betsy's demeanor hides a past more dark and damaged than her own. They bond by showing each other their scars, the results of being battered. Betsy had killed her abusive husband in his sleep. Because she was sentenced to many years in prison, she lost all contact with her children.

In walking the dogs, Ellie finds lost pieces of herself. She fumbles with the leash to her life - struggling to hold on as it pulls her toward a vision of brighter future before her past can catch up with her. Learning to walk the dogs becomes a metaphor for gaining control over her life.

Eventually, Ellie learns that Betsy is dying of cancer. She inherits the dog-walking business. During Betsy's final days, Ellie's former boyfriend returns. Now Ellie is forced to use the disciplinary strength she has had to learn as a dog-walker and becomes a newly independent woman.

Cinema Alchemy

Louise came to her first session because her best friend urged her to start therapy. My new client felt desperate and helpless because her husband, Harry, had been verbally abusive for several years, especially under the influence of alcohol. He refused to consider individual or couples therapy, and did not want to address his drinking problem. Louise revealed to me that she has never confronted him about his demeaning attacks because she was not sure whether she might deserve them. Besides, she feared that she might agitate him even more. Harry always apologizes and asks for forgiveness after he calms down from an outburst of rage. Then she gains hope that things will improve. Although my client understood the cyclical pattern of her husband's behavior, and became increasingly anxious and depressed during this marriage, she did not consider divorce. The couple has no children. During our first few sessions, Louise was wondering: What if I get even more depressed because I feel lonely and financially less secure after a separation? Besides, what if he is right, and I deserves to be yelled at?

Later, Louise remembered that she was frequently criticized by her father during her childhood. Since she was receptive to movie metaphors, I explained that this might have created a psychological imprint, which I call an "undesired inner movie". Our "inner movies" play the stories that we tell ourselves about the world around us and about who we are. The "plots" of these inner movies often tell stories about our world and ourselves that are based on early life experiences. Projecting a childhood "movie" on today's reality, Louise struggled with the conviction that there was something wrong with her, that she was not good enough and that therefore she did not have a right to speak up and free herself from an abusive situation. Slowly, Louise started to understand that her self doubts, her fear of separation, as well as her belief that standing up to Harry could lead to more conflict, made her stuck, resentful, anxious and depressed.

Because Louise loved movies, she was excited about my suggestion to view the film Dogwalker. I encouraged her to pay attention to Ellie's character development and to imagine herself in Ellie's role. Louise was fascinated and watched this movie several times while she paid close attention to Ellie's changes. The movie became a catalyst for my client's psychological development. In Cinema Alchemy language, I explained to her that, by observing Ellie's transformation, she "copied" the character's healing experience into her own "inner movie screen" and at the same time "erased" her old, undesired inner film.

Within a few weeks, Louise developed a more positive self-image that led to increased autonomy in most of her relationships. Eventually she felt strong enough to confront her husband about his abusive behavior and alcoholism. Harry's continued lack of receptivity started to make her angry now. It didn't take very long, and Louise expressed to me that she wanted to prepare herself for a divorce - internally and financially. From this point on, we have mostly worked toward this new goal in our sessions.

Theoretical Contemplation

In this Cinema Alchemy approach, The Prescriptive Way , specific films are prescribed as a kind of "teaching tale" to model specific problem-solving behavior or to help our clients to access and develop their potential. They are guided to "become" a character in their imagination who models desired behaviors and skills. This is a way to help clients acquire the film character's attributes.

This approach is based on the understanding that watching a movie can put clients into a light trance state, similar to the state often achieved via guided visualizations. Like trance work, watching movies in this way guides them toward a mature or wise inner part. Subsequently, this part helps clients overcome problems and strengthen previously unfamiliar positive qualities.       

Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Clients

•  Did you see one or several characters who modeled behavior in certain parts of the film that you would like to emulate?

•  Did these character(s) develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like to gain as well?

•  Imagine yourself as one of these characters when you watch the movie. Imagine yourself with the mature or wise aspects of the character's personality.

•  How would your life look like if you had the character's qualities or capacities?

•  Imagine yourself using these qualities or capacities in your life.


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