The Cinema Therapy Newsletter #9
Dec. 22, 2003
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Happy Holidays!

starNew Cinema Therapy Research:
Colleagues Stuart Fischoff and June Wilson have launched a cinema therapy survey. The questionnaire is part of Wilson's dissertation project and asks respondents a series of questions related to the type of issues they are working on and their experience using films for therapy. Fischoff explains:

"We are trying to develop a procedure and a measuring instrument to 1) explore the effectiveness of the technique of [cinema therapy] as a therapeutic adjunct or aid, and, 2) to begin to develop a picture of under what presenting problem conditions it is more or less effective and with what kinds of patients, demographically speaking (age, sex). We are also interested in whether or not there is any relationship between how long the patient has been struggling with the problem (chronicity) and how readily they respond to exposure to a problem in a film. Once this data is collected, we might expand on looking at what sort of portrayals (i.e., how is the problem presented onscreen) prove more or less effective in producing a positive response to [cinema therapy]. These are just some of the dimensions of the very complicated topic of [cinema therapy] that we're looking into."

starCinema Therapy Groups:

"I have had my first cinema/film/movie therapy group with my patients and it was a success. I had three patients all suffering from severe anxiety and unable to identify this. With the help from our activity therapist, we chose to show a clip from Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock. It was actually the first 15 minutes. They were mesmerized by the music and the tense scene. All were able to identify and could not wait to talk about it. They showed such relief from the globalization and begged to watch the rest. We chose to show the entire film in the afternoon, which all attended when normally they would nap. They continued to discuss the movie, and therapeutically. It was a wonderful experience. We are excited about this and looking forward to many more like this.

"The group is held at the inpatient geri-psychiatric unit at Corry Memorial Hospital in Corry, Pennsylvania. At this time it is only for my patients on the unit but eventually will be for families, community members and professionals working with the elderly population."

Corry, PA.

"I have been following cinematherapy for approximately six months and am ready to try it in a high school setting. I teach in an inner city high school and will be attempting a unit on Aboriginal Studies. Most of the students in my at-risk program (50% are aboriginal) have a very narrow view both historically and globally of indigenous peoples. My objective is to make them aware that their situations in Canada are not isolated and in fact exist globally. Tentatively, I have chosen Once Were Warriors, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Little Big Man and Smoke Signals. I am hoping that these movies will broaden the perspective of both the native and non-native students in my graduating class.

"It's still in the design stages and nothing has been finalized yet. In fact, as I write this I am in the process of contacting the university and our Department of Education. I am looking for an instrument that will identify prejudices (preferably racial and with an underlying, not overt, assessment procedure) that I can use pre/post unit."

—Rodger Spelmer
Winnepeg, Canada

starCinema Therapy Training Opportunities:
A new course about the psychological aspects of cinema is being offered through the Fischler Graduate School of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL, to be held in conjunction with the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The course is titled Cinematherapy (found near the bottom of the page) and takes a unique approach to using films as a therapeutic tool. The emphasis is on teaching filmmakers and other image creators how to make films that have a therapeutic effect. The course also aims to be useful for therapists who wish to learn more about the specific ways in which films effect the psyche. The course is worth three credits.

Excerpts from the course description:

In this course students will be immersed in a process of in-depth examination of the meaning and power of images. Images, in fact, are never neutral; their effect is that of conditioning the observer. It is important, therefore, to carry out a scholarly analysis of what an image actually is. Image based thinking will be considered both in relation to the creative process and to problem solving.

We will begin with the philosophical concept of an idea as a mental representation. We will study the symbolism of dreams in order to understand the close relationship between images and the unconscious. The psychoanalytical proposition that a film may be considered the film director’s dream will be closely scrutinized.

Students will study Cinematherapy: a new technique for analyzing films and psychological dynamics. The concept of Cinematherapy is rooted in the awareness that the film viewer is conditioned by his or her individual life experience, and this in turn makes the viewer’s perception highly unique. The viewer’s intimate interior world and life experiences condition perception of the film, and result in a highly subjective interpretation. This is due to the fact that the viewer assimilates only certain images and edits out others, all on the basis of unique individual experiences.

The study of Cinematherapy will enable the viewer to understand the underlying causes of certain emotions experienced during a film, and will shed light on certain aspects of one’s own personality and on how others view the same situation.

This course will prove extremely useful to filmmakers and producers because as students they will have the opportunity to learn from the most successful practitioners of cinema arts. A profound study of film from the perspective of Cinematherapy will provide an understanding of why a film is successful, and will increase awareness of trends in public taste. Understanding the power that images have on their spectators will give students a greater knowledge of how to create films that go beyond mere entertainment.

Through in-depth analysis of the image, the student will come to understand and make intelligent use of the power that images have on their audience. This knowledge is useful for anyone working in the world of visual communication such as photographers, art directors, painters, sculptors, and advertising personnel. This course will also prove useful to psychologists, doctors, social workers, teachers and others working with groups or individuals for self-improvement. The study of Cinematherapy contributes to an understanding of specific emotional patterns induced by certain images.

Another new course, Moving Pictures: Film as Transformational Tool, to be taught by Cindy Lou Golin, is set to begin in winter 2004 at J.F.K. University in Orinda, CA. Golin says it will focus on the use of film as a personal growth tool using multiple modalities but often focusing on projection. She also plans to include elements of Gestalt, psychosynthesis, dreamwork modalities, REBT, and identification. Golin agreed to an interview via email:

CTN: How did you first become interested in the subject?
CLG: I grew up around film. My father was a projectionist. I also have a background in the film industry as a producer, which has bridged with my years of education in psychology. I was aware of the impact watching a movie had on me (as well as how much I enjoyed it) and I began to realize the power of film and how it can be used in psychological healing and growth. I designed a class along with another professor a couple years ago and the feedback from students was very positive. They found it powerful and transformative. It was also something they enjoyed. It gave a more interesting, even entertaining, approach to personal growth. It was clear that the processes in class were very effective and that the students were able to take the methods used in class and do this work on their own, in partners or in small groups, as well as some who use it with their clients and others. The students were so interested, and found the processes so valuable that even after the quarter was over some of them continued to meet even though they were not receiving course credit.

CTN: What is the most important aspect of using film in therapy, with specific regard to its chance for success or failure with a given person?
CLG: The most important aspect (in my particular approach) is how the client relates to the film. A film may work well for one client but not for another. However there seem to be "safe bets"—films which most people will find rich in emotional content (e.g. Life is Beautiful, Legends of the Fall, Pay it Forward). The level of emotional intensity seems to be a way to gauge whether there is material for the client to work with (although there is always material to work with, I suppose its the impact or intensity that may vary). I think we need to be careful here, however, some films can be too intense for some clients and some films are too intense for most clients. Some films require greater levels of ego development in order to be useful and not potentially harmful (for example, Requiem for a Dream can be too intense for some).

I want to specify here that both positive and negative reactions to films, characters, etc. are equally valuable. If a client is prescribed a movie and returns saying "I hated it!," this can be a wonderful opportunity to explore what underlies that discomfort. For example, one week (in a ten week course) we assigned Blue Velvet for viewing. When the students came back to class after seeing it, most of them had intense, negative reactions to it and most of them "hated it." After processing around this, most students left the class with valuable insights and thanked us for assigning it. It was an interesting transformation that occurred.

I believe the clients/students that seem to find my approach to this work valuable are those who are willing and have the ability to own the feelings, thoughts, etc. that they experience during the film. It's about how the client relates to the film, and understanding that goes a long way in using movies in personal growth work. It's necessary for the individual to take responsibility for their thoughts and feelings for my approach to be useful. There is an objective stimulus (the movie) that everyone in the audience shares the experience of, but the subjective interpretations of the film are where there is variation and this is where the opportunity for growth can be accessed.

While we can focus a prescribed/assigned film on a particular issue—and often that is fruitful in dealing with that particular issue—we can not predict what will actually come up (mentally, emotionally) as we (or our clients) watch a movie. I have experienced with myself and with students that something unexpected, below the surface, can come up when working with a film. The willingness to be open to that goes a long way. Because many of us are used to having our guard down while we view a film, unexpected feelings can arise and exploring those feelings can be very valuable. The defense mechanism of projection was articulated by Freud, and is described as projecting that which we are unable to own within ourselves onto objects and people outside ourselves. While we project onto friends and family members, it is even safer to project onto a movie or movie character. I can safely project onto the screen uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and not be concerned about the future of my relationship with Denis Hopper.

A film can be assigned or prescribed for a client and watching it alone may be beneficial, but the most value seems to be in processing the emotions after viewing the film. There are many different ways this can be done (gestalt, psychosynthesis, dreamwork, regular talk therapy, REBT, working with projections/identification). Once the client learns the process with a facilitator or therapist they can then do it on their own fairly easily. In my classes I provide some step-by-step guides. Awareness paid to one's own experience of a film is also valuable. Simply journaling after watching a film can be valuable.

CTN: How is the course viewed by your faculty peers at JFK? By the administration?
CLG: This is my first time teaching this course at JFK and so far the feedback is positive. At the previous school where it was taught most of the faculty and admin were interested, supportive and excited about it, including the Academic Dean.

CTN: How do people sign up?
CLG: Folks can take this class as a "non-degree" student. Information can be found at or they can call 925.254.0200.

starThanks for reading. I encourage and welcome feedback.

-Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT.,
Canyon, CA, USA

-Franklin Seal
freelance writer
Moab, UT, USA