The Cinema Therapy Newsletter #32
November, 2008
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starIn the Spotlight:

7ABC News interviewed Jonathan Young from the Center for Story and Symbol in Santa Barbara, CA on the dark side of recent movies. Here are highlights of this interview - followed by additional reflections about the mythic villains in these films.

Allan Cooperstein, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist from from Clinical Willow Grove, PA reviewed the Dark Knight movie for Amazon. He wrote: "As a viewer I applaud Ledger's performance; as a psychologist I cannot help but wonder what the impact of his role had upon his psyche in such close proximity to the filming. If my suspicions are correct and his performance wins an Oscar, the cost will have been far greater than the limelight or salary he earned."

Dr. LaCombe from Vancouver, BC writes in her article, Being Triggered by Halloween: "Halloween is celebrated as a way to help us playfully deal with our fears. But if fears are rooted in unresolved trauma we might experience this event a little differently."

The Health Care Guide tells us in the article 'Tis The Season To Be Jolly: "Watching movies that feature warm, sunny, summery climates show demonstrable improvements in mood. Research shows that any film with clear blue cloudless skies, palm trees and an absence of snow should qualify for a movie therapy."

In September, 2008 the 11th Eastern-Western Psychiatry Congress, II PAX CINEFILMOTHERAPINA, took place in Belek, Antalya, Turkish Republic. During the presentation, Bipolarity and World Polar Spectrum: Global Cinema, many internationally produced commercial movies, in which Bipolar Disorder is portrayed, were presented.

Sharon Packer, MD, presented atThe Institute for Psychiatric Services From Caligari to Hannibal the Cannibal: Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema at the Palmer House in Chicago, IL.


Bernie Wooder is a British the psychotherapist, film buff, and movie therapist. He has just published his new book, Movie Therapy: How it Changes Lives. In an article by the Telegraph about this book and Bernie's work, the author said: “We’re only at the beginning of what movie therapy can really do. It could be used on everyone from hardened criminals in prisons to patients in hospitals.”

Ryan M. Niemiec, Danny Wedding just published their new book, Positive Psychology At The Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths. Positive psychology is concerned with strengths and virtues, particularly those that lead to fulfillment, connectedness, and meaning in life. Drawing on the authors’ experience of teaching, movie discussion groups, and with patients, this book combines research-based advice on how to improve life and flourish – using movies to exemplify, illuminate, and inspire.

The latest page on the All About Psychology Website explores the different levels at which psychology in the movies has been examined, researched and discussed. Among the topics under review are movie therapy and the accuracy of film representations of psychologists and psychological disorders.

The Journal Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal that explores the ways in which recent advancements in fields such as psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, genetics and evolution help to increase our understanding of film, and how film itself facilitates investigations into the nature and function of the mind. Sample copies can be requested here. Associated with this journal is the listserv, Forum for Movies and Mind, an international multidisciplinary group discussing film theories, and how movies help to understand our mind as well as how our mind helps us to understand movies.

Robmarie Lopez summarized Cinema Therapy very well on the blog "Wordslave".

starWorkshops and Online Courses:

Birgit Wolz

Sunday, February 15 through Friday, Febuary 20, 2009
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California
Using the Power of Movies for Healing and Transformation
Inquiries into our emotional responses to movies open a window to our soul. How we relate to a film's archetypal motifs reveals our inner life. Together we build a bridge between our realizations in "reel" life and our experiences in real life. Watching films with conscious awareness makes us recognize aspects of our shadow self, and help us find our authentic self and essence.

Find complete workshop description here.

Clinical training material will be provided on CDs.

Psychologists, Counselors, other Psychotherapists, Nurses, and Teachers earn 26 CEU.

Fee: depends on choice of accommodation
Registration: 831-667-3005 or
General information about Esalen can be found here.

Continuing Education Online Courses for Mental Health Professionals:

For the Movie Lover:
A package of four online courses for CE credits that are based on popular movies
- Cinema Therapy
- Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents
- Therapeutic Ethics in Movies
- Therapeutic Boundaries in Films
- Learn About the DSM Through the Movies

25 CE credits can be earned.
Continuing education credits are available for Psychologists (APA), MFTs & LCSWs (CA-BBS), Social Workers (ASWB) and counselors in California and other states.
Click here for more information.

Transgender Night at the Movies:

4th Sunday of the month (except December)
6:00 - 9:00 pm
Popcorn included!
Pre-registration required
Scent-free site near El Cerrito, CA
Exact address and directions sent upon registration

The series schedule:
Transgender Families: November 23, 2008
FTM Stories (Female to Male): January 25, 2009
MTF Stories (Male to Female): February 22, 2009
Other Genders: March 22, 2009

Facilitator: Valerie Igl, MFT
Contact: or 510-527-5662 x3
Fee: $20 each, or $50 each with CEU's, series discounts available

Shoshanna April

E-Motion Picture Circles - Where Reel Life is a Metaphor for Real Life
Emotion Picture Circles exists in order to provide you with entertaining movies that will:
• Awaken your sense of joy and wonder
• Inspire love and add to insights
• Evoke a deeper connection with the universe around you
• Clarify values and are life affirming
When: Contact Shoshanna for information

Place: El Cerrito/Richmond, CA (directions given at registration)
Time: Contact Shoshanna for information
Cost: Free. Love donation sincerely appreciated
Directions: Given at time of Confirmation
RSVP: Pre-registration required, space is limited to 12 participants
Call Shoshanna April 510-502-4164 or write at to reserve your space.

The Canadian Mental Health Association in Vancouver hosts a monthly movie night for psych ward patients and their families, if interested. Each night has a specific mental-health related theme.

starCinema Therapy Research

4th year college students in the Philippines completed their undergraduate thesis about "The Effect of Cinematherapy on Institutionalized Sexually Abused Female Adolescents".


Therapeutic Movie Review Column
By Birgit Wolz

Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford
Producers: Ronald L. Schwary
Alvin Sargent
Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern, Dinah Manoff, Fredric Lehne, James Sikking
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1980


The Jarretts, an upper-middle-class family, live in a suburban overly large house, which looks like it's out of Better Homes and Gardens. Their second son Conrad, a 16-year-old high school junior, used to be an ordinary teen: a good student, popular, and a successful member of the swim team.

About a year ago, he helplessly watched his older brother Jordan drown in a boating accident. Since then the boy became severely depressed and dreams furiously, jerking awake bathed in sweat. He has frightening flashbacks to the accident, experiences chronic agitation, appetite loss, and poor concentration. Conrad avoids his former friends, and suffers from extreme guilt. He blames himself for his brother's death. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt and hospitalization, Conrad has become a semi-outcast at school. The teenager appears distracted and unreachable. He is a different person to those who used to be his friends.

His father, Calvin, a mild-mannered successful Chicago attorney, can no longer connect with Conrad either and worries about him. His love for his son is sincere, yet also inarticulate and shy. Confused and hurt, Calvin treats Conrad as if he is a fragile ornament, not to be touched. His mother Beth is an embittered, selfish, and superficially cheerful homemaker whom "everyone loves." This controlling matriarch loved the dead older son more than Conrad. Mother and son live in an atmosphere of unvoiced blame. Her palpable distance and cold unconscious resentment chills horribly as she shuts Conrad out of her life. Previously the second-born had lived in his brother's shadow. Calvin tries to mediate between Beth and Conrad, but feels stuck in the middle and cannot bring them together.

Eventually Conrad agrees to see a psychologist, Dr. Berger. After the boy states that his purpose for coming to therapy is gaining control over his life, Berger responds, "I'm not big on control". In order to buffer the impact of this challenging statement, he continues, "But it's your money, so to speak." Then the psychologist uses teenage language to build a therapeutic alliance like "control is a tough nut". By rummaging through his notes, he communicates to Conrad that he is not the only one who lacks control in his life.

Berger tries to build rapport to help his client face his emotions. He wants Conrad to cancel his swimming practice and see him twice a week because they are "working on a difficult problem." Despite his initial guardedness, Conrad eventually agrees to psychotherapy twice weekly.

In early sessions, Conrad avoids talking about anything other than his dreams. When the purpose of avoiding his feelings by doing so is pointed out, Conrad pushes himself to experience emotional catharses of anger. But he reports that he did not feel better afterward. Consequently the teenager repeatedly retreats again to a guarded attitude about any feelings, which reflects both his intellectual style of functioning, and his inability to grieve for his brother's death.

Besides effectively confronting Conrad's initial passive-aggressive resistance, the psychologist experiments with flexible therapeutic boundaries to help his client acknowledge and address his anxiety about his anger and sadness. For example, by turning on music, he discloses his musical taste. Berger also demonstrates how varying distance during therapy can be clinically effective. He wheels his chair far away from the client when he wants to give the adolescent space. A few seconds later, he wheels it close up and confronts the teenager by being "in his face."

Berger's interventions allow Conrad to face his troubling past and address his feelings about his parents. After his realization that he had competed unsuccessfully for his mother's attention with his older brother, he quits the swim team on which Jordan had been a star, and for the first time asks a girl out on a date.

Beth appears angrier at the embarrassment she experienced than worried about her son when she confronts Conrad about quitting the swim team. As he recognizes this, he becomes able to express his anger at her about never having visited him during his psychiatric hospitalization.

When Conrad calls Berger in the middle of the night because his friend committed suicide, the psychologist conducts a session immediately. The therapist's availability at this crucial moment allows his client to work through his guilt, anger, and grief successfully in a painful and moving emotional battle. The teenager has a significant breakthrough on his path toward recovery.

Cinema Alchemy

When Brianna, a 17-year old high school student lost her only sibling, 14-year old Katie, to heart failure several months ago, she started withdrawing from friends and family. Because she feared that peers would make fun of her, she never cried about this loss. Although her parents told her that her sister's death was not her fault - Katie had suffered from a congenial incurable heart condition - Brianna felt responsible for her death. She believed she should not have invited her to play table tennis the day before she died. Brianna appeared sensitive and mature for her age. Her parents brought the girl to therapy because she seemed depressed and had nightmares. They told me that they try to not show Brianna their own sadness about Katie's death to not depress her even more.

During our first session, Brianna appeared withdrawn and made it clear to me that starting therapy was not her idea. I asked her whether she was open to some family therapy sessions after watching the movie Ordinary People with her parents a home. When she agreed, I made the same suggestion to her parents.

They told me during our subsequent family therapy session that all of them cried when they saw Conrad's pain in the movie. Brianna's parents agreed that these were really tears about the loss of their Katie. Watching the film served as a catalyst for their emotions. The fact that the whole family responded with tears to the film helped Brianna normalize her sadness and her impulses to cry. More grief surfaced throughout several family therapy sessions. With the help of my guiding questions (see below) the family started to accept their mourning as a healing process.

During later individual sessions, I asked Brianna what she thought about Conrad's therapy sessions. By talking about the relationship between this character and his therapist, she was able to address her anxiety about her own therapeutic process. This helped her break through her resistance to therapy and start trusting me.

Subsequently I worked with Brianna's guilt by referring to Conrad's feelings (see question below). As she recognized that Conrad's guilt was not justified, she was able to see the same for herself. Pretty soon her nightmares and depression symptoms disappeared.

Theoretical Contemplation

Movies like Ordinary People, used as an adjunct to grief therapy, can serve as a catalyst for suppressed emotions. This allows clients to open up to the grieving process or explore the issues that have inhibited healthy mourning. They may also feel less alone in their pain. Film characters often serve as either negative or positive models for the grieving process. The character Conrad appears initially as a negative and later as a positive model.

When one family member resists therapy, encouraging them to watch a movie where a characters struggles with similar issues can help the resisting client to open up because they are less intimidated by the therapeutic process and less afraid of getting blamed.

Guidelines and Questions for work with Grief

Before the movie:

Crying is ok when you feel sad. Let yourself cry when you feel like it during this movie.

Ask clients to notice ...

•  how Conrad's negative, self-defeating beliefs and his resistance to grief slowly change,

•  how he develops a new sense of compassion and purpose when he finally gives himself permission to grieve,

•  how Conrad take small acts of courage in spite of fear, and

•  how his determination and endurance helps him become stronger.

After the movie:

•  Do you think that it's anybody's fault that Jordan in the movie died?

•  How do you feel about Conrad's experience of grief and guilt in relation to your own?

•  What did you see in the film that reminds you of your own inner and outer resources?


starThanks for reading. I encourage and welcome feedback.

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