Popcorn therapy: Therapy visits the reel
By Cassandra Braun
Contra Costa Times
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was
exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” pleads Bill
Murray’s character Phil in Groundhog Day.
Birgit Wolz asks the same question of her patients, but she adds an
instructive spin by urging them to imagine how they would enrich their
lives if they were “stuck” like Phil.
It’s one way the Piedmont, Calif.-based psychologist is using movies as
therapy in the latest trend of the psychiatry world, cinema therapy. Wolz
is introducing East Bay residents to the avant-garde methods with her
Cinema Therapy Group.
Movies like American Beauty, Annie Hall and Dead Poets Society
provide copious material for the eight-member group, which meets
weekly for three months to discuss how the movies relate to issues in their
Participants talk about why certain movie characters leave strong
impressions, good or bad, and what that might say about their values and
hopes. Movies can help clarify these questions, Wolz says, which can
then be used as an im-petus for personal growth — or at least an
Wolz, who’s been a practicing psychologist for 10 years, was introduced
to the therapy last year at a workshop, “Movies and Mythic Imagination:
Using Films in Depth Psychology,” held at the Center for Symbol and
Stories. It’s a professional psychology training group based in California.
“I was very inspired because I always use imagination in therapy,” Wolz
says. “Movies are images that can be used in the same ways as dreams.”
Like dream interpretation, cinematic images can be seen as symbols that
represent deep, unconscious expectations and anxieties, Wolz says. But
she’s careful to point out that the counseling group is not appropriate for
people with serious psychological disorders.
A movie fan herself, Wolz is well-aware how important these flickering
images can be in a person’s life. In fact, Wolz’s favorite movie, Sliding
Doors, was a powerful reminder to her of the diverse directions life can
The 1998 film stars Gwyneth Paltrow and plays with the classic “what
if?” question, exploring the alternative path Paltrow’s character would
have taken if she had made a different last-minute decision.
If that film opened the door for a new future for Wolz, the classic baseball
film Field of Dreams propelled her to act on it.
“Field of Dreams reminded me that it’s really important to follow your
inner guidance, as opposed to your fears. It gave me encouragement to
pursue my dreams,” admits the German native, who switched careers late
in the game from economist to psychotherapist after recovering from a
debilitating stroke.
“Sometimes we lose hope or worry how things are going to continue — a
movie like that reminds us to really follow these dreams.”
Some critics might argue that we do this already when we grab a rental
copy of Terms of Endearment or Erin Brockovich.
True, says Wolz, but cinema therapy requires the movie viewer to take a
more active role and consciously observe how the “reel” life reflects the
“real” life.
Wolz admits not everyone is ready for “action,” but at the very least the
therapy gets people thinking and talking about questions they either
couldn’t talk about or weren’t even aware were there.
“I’ve used movies in individual settings, but for me the inspiration came
when I led groups,” Wolz says. “When we discover things about
ourselves with witnesses, it is very powerful. People inspire each other in
the group. It can deepen the experience.”
Cinema therapy viewing tipsTherapist Birgit Wolz has
these suggestions :
Prepare your viewing area. Clear things away and make
sure you’re comfortable.
To help you focus on the present, observe your body and
your breathing. Without forcing it, notice any areas of
tension and try to release them through your breath.
Try to turn off your inner critic.
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