The Cinema Therapy Newsletter #14
May 23, 2004
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The 1st Annual Frames of Mind Mental Health Film Festival -- Even though this Vancouver, BC event sponsored by Pacific Cinematheque has already occurred, I thought it good to spread the word about it because it looks to become an annual event.

starWorkshops and CT Groups:
I am very happy to report that I was invited to give a 2 1/2 hour guest lecture about Cinema Therapy in the class Personality and Psychotherapy of the Liberal Arts program at John F. Kennedy University, Pleasant Hill, California. According to the syllabus, this lecture series is designed to make undergraduate students “knowledgeable about the major theories and concepts of personality and psychotherapy”. This is their first exposure to theories of psychotherapy. The series now includes Freud, Rogers, Gestalt, Behavioral Therapy, and — believe it or not — Cinema Therapy. Doesn’t this invitation demonstrate that Cinema Therapy is “moving up in the ranks”? I enjoyed my presentation immensely because the students were very receptive and grateful to learn about the use of movies in therapy.

These letters illustrate the growing use of CT in clinical practice:

I have been a Licensed Professional Counselor for nine years and was an attorney for six years. I am in private practice in Charlotte, NC. I lead a therapy group for people in transition. The group is designed to help participants move through their changes. The hope is also that members will use this transitional time as an opportunity to live more authentic and centered lives. I will be offering groups in the future for specific transitions, such as divorce or career change.

Movies are given as homework. I also play film clips in session to generate discussion. Participants are also encouraged to bring in clips of their own. Drawing, collage and other creative exercises are also integrated into the process.

The group meets every other week for an hour and a half.

I recently was interviewed by Lawrence Toppman. He is the movie reviewer for the Charlotte Observer. The article will be in the May 17th edition.

--Michael Kahn, LPC, JD

As a 2nd year intern, I suddenly found myself in the position of facilitating multi-family groups on recovery and family roles. Terrified but fearless about the opportunity, I began to think intensely about how I would manage to keep my sanity and teach families about their roles in the recovery process. I did a great deal of communicating with my supervisor at the time, [who] happened to be a very spiritual and nurturing person. Keeping in the forefront the work I was doing with the clients, helped to bring to fruition the constant nagging unconscious thought of how wonderful it would be to have family members there engaging in the process. Being mindful of the guilt and shame that runs through the souls of many recovering addicts and their family members, helped me create a foundation for a positive experience for everyone (well most of the time) without forgetting the lessons. Many sleepless nights and endless anxiety-ridden days led me to the importance of spotlighting commonalities versus differences if this was to be a powerful and positive experience. Also, not forgetting that now I was bringing together families (with baggage) to work on common ground with strangers. What better thing to do than to create an atmosphere where the initial work is done through cinema leaving them free to be vulnerable with their emotions. However once the group processing of the movie began, it became their life, their family, and most important their experience.

Using cinema as a catalyst for self-actualization has allowed me to grow as an intern and at the same time help clients and their families learn self-acceptance. I pride myself on the ability to take a movie, for example, When A Man Loves A Woman and show addiction, codependency, boundaries, self-acceptance, recovery, etc. Or Affliction and talk about the trans-generational process and its cunning and baffling process masked in a ghostlike fashion. How about 28 Days to explain my own clinical concept of ‘transition versus transcendence.’ My list of movies includes, The Nutty Professor, Passion Fish, Home for the Holidays, Come Back Little Sheba.

--Georgette Cobbs, M.S.
Program Coordinator
Perinatal ‘Reunion’ Treatment Program
New Connections Recovery and Counseling Services

I work in a Florida Department of Corrections contracted adult male involuntary substance abuse/behavioral treatment program. I was stimulated to do cinema therapy because the men in treatment have been incarcerated for over one year and have been mesmerized by T.V. As you know, this is a form of social control in the prison.

For the most part, the men have a history of being externally stimulated so I thought this therapeutic method might be helpful. The men have nothing to do on Saturday mornings. This is the only voluntary group they regularly have available. All of the other groups in the program have mandated attendance or are only brief, topical meetings. The men who attend are permitted to select their next movie of the week from a number of different professional sources and I use a number of different methods to encourage interaction.

Most of the men are resistant to change and treatment. I am hoping to have the men make a connection between this voluntary group and seeking help on a voluntary basis in the community. I have almost 30 years of experience in mental health and plan to retire in the not too distant future.

Daytona Beach, FL

...the workshop based on Capturing the Friedman's went extremely well - especially since my co-presenter and I brought a controversial topic to the clinical participants, i.e. challenging their beliefs and assumptions in looking at police and therapy interviewing (perhaps) gone wrong.

...By the way, Michael Freeny and I gave our first all day workshop on the movie Thirteen, a six hour seminar with didactic info on teen sex, drugs and self injury, and it was quite successful. If anyone wants to visit you can see the workshops we have developed for home CE credit.

--Margot Escott
Naples, FL


I am a doctoral student at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA. Areas of interest include using cinema with emotionally disturbed teenagers, and I am recently looking at the use of film to explore the personal and collective shadow - broad categories, I know. Well, I am about to enter the dissertation phase of my program, and will be conducting research into film as an aid in uncovering and integrating repressed parts of the Self.

-- Jean-Marie Mitchell, MBA, Ph.D. candidate at Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, CA

PS: If anyone would like to participate in a film discussion group as part of my research, they can contact me at:

starIn the Spotlight:
Stephen Simon's Spiritual Cinema Circle site made Newsweek on May 10, in a small article titled: DVD's -- Make it a Circle Night

When you think of Hollywood, you don't exactly think of spirituality. But veteran producer Stephen Simon would like to see that change. In March, tired of Hollywood's blockbuster mentality --it took him 15 years to get What Dreams May Come made -- Simon cofounded the Spiritual Cinema Circle, a DVD club that sends three to five spiritually themed movies each month to subscribers. Handpicked from film festivals, the movies qualify if they uplift or explain the human condition-but not if they're overtly religious. (Whale Rider fits; The Passion doesn't.) There's an audience: more than 5,000 people have already joined, almost entirely through word of mouth. Simon contends that spiritual cinema is a genre just as legitimate as action or comedy. "Spiritual cinema has been around forever," he says. "It just hasn't been recognized as such." Inspired by Simon, a handful of indie movie stores have added spiritual sections to their stores. Will Blockbuster follow? Too soon to tell, but imitating success is one value that Hollywood holds dear.


Mining the Gold in Movies for Healing and Transformation
by Birgit Wolz

My Big Fat Geek Wedding
Director: Joel Zwick
Producer: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Gary Goetzman
Screenwriter: Nia Vardalos
Stars: Nia Vardalos, Michael Constantine, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Louis Mandylor, Gia Carides, Bruce Gray, Joey Fatone
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2002


The film opens with a dark, cold, rainy morning in Chicago. Toula Portokalos is arriving at work with her father, who expresses to his daughter how old she appears. Toula looks as if she is used to this negativity and feels badly about herself. She is a waitress at a Greek restaurant, owned by her family. She allows herself to be walked all over by her family and friends, who make most of her choices for her. Her family promotes three traditional values — marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone until you die. From an early age, she is mortified by their patriotic “over-the-top” ways. The movie demonstrates how her peers at school ridiculed Toula for being different when they were children. Most members of her family, especially her father, believe she is not capable of doing more with her life. Toula looks dreary and old for her age. She has poor posture and a sour expression. Her hair is uncombed and she wears a drab brown outfit. One day while working, she sees Ian, who she finds attractive. She hides behind the counter to peer at him.

This is a turning point for Toula. When she begins taking classes at a local college, her confidence improves. Toula becomes a successful travel agent. She is able to reinvent herself and create a new appearance. She gains self-esteem. Her old insecurities still show when she is a bit star-struck seeing Ian again, hitting her head on a cabinet. As she overcomes her insecurities, she bucks tradition and becomes engaged to this man who is not Greek, and eventually wins the family over to him and to their wedding plans. What ensues is a tale of what happens when two families — one loud Greek Orthodox, the other conservative Episcopalian — must reconcile their differences for the sake of their children's happiness. Toula stands her ground and elicits the support she needs to reach her goals.

Since this movie is a comedy and not a character study, it is up to us to imagine Toula’s resources for her transformation. This can be used an invitation for clients to fill in the holes with their imagination and look inward at the same time, finding their own resources.

Cinema Alchemy

My client Terry suffered from low self-esteem. Even though Terry is an attractive woman, she often complained about her appearance. Besides working in a law firm, she took some college classes but didn’t think that she was smart enough to make it through school. Terry would have loved to become a teacher. When I asked her about her upbringing, she told me that she had very critical parents. She was the oldest and her parents had extremely high expectations of her. Almost nothing she did was good enough.

Because Terry had such a negative self-image, she appeared insecure at work, which made her less successful than she could be. She told me that she did not want to date because that would be too scary. Most of her few friends also suffered from low self-esteem.

In session we talked about her inner critic and I showed her David Burn’s list of possible cognitive distortions *. After reading them carefully she told me, “I am sorry, but I do not think that my beliefs about myself are distorted. How I see myself looks very true to me.” She could not imagine a different perspective.

At this point I suggested she watch the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and encouraged her to especially focus on how Toula transforms herself from an “ugly duckling” into an attractive, successful woman.

Throughout the following sessions, I asked Terry the questions that are listed as guidelines below. Since she was very motivated to work on her low self-esteem, she was open to this process. Terry didn’t know all the answers right away but kept remembering my questions throughout the next month and came up with the answers. Terry stated that Toula may have struggled with most of the cognitive distortions in the list, saying “Toula labels herself as ugly and incapable. It was obvious that she takes on the ‘shoulds’ of her family who seem to keep Toula ‘in a box‘.” When Terry saw this, she had to admit to herself that she struggled with these distortions herself. She understood also that she frequently uses “mental filters” by dwelling on the negative and ignoring the positive.

As soon as she admitted to herself that her self-image might be distorted like Toula’s in the first part of the film, Terry started questioning her thinking. What if it wasn’t completely true? If her thinking was distorted, could she change like Toula did? Terry came more and more to the conclusion: What Toula can do, I can do too. Whenever she caught herself dwelling on her weaknesses (labeling), she started questioning it. When she noticed some real shortcomings, such as her weakness in math, she acknowledged it and studied harder until she completed her class successfully. Before Terry would have given up because she believed she was “too stupid to get it anyway” (all-or–nothing thinking). Terry began to enjoy her classes and became a good student. After a while and with newly gained confidence, she started dating too. Guidelines for work with clients

Before the movie:

• Watch how Toula transforms herself from an “ugly duckling” into an attractive, successful woman.

After the movie:

• Do you think that Toula’s view of herself could have been distorted * at the beginning of the movie?
• Which might have been her negative beliefs?
• How, do you think, was this character able to let go of her self-doubts?
• Imagine yourself as Toula when she lets go of her negative beliefs.
- What negative thoughts about yourself are dropping away?
- How does this feel?
- How do you perceive yourself now?

* David D. Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook (New York: Plume, 1999), p. 296.

starThanks for reading. I encourage and welcome feedback.

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


-Franklin Seal
freelance writer
Moab, UT, USA