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Life at the Movies – The Art of Cinema Therapy
More and more counselors are turning American movies from the past into an effective therapeutic tool. I personally incorporated the use of Kinotherapy with clients informally over five years ago. However, in the last two years I have started to use it more consistently as an additional form of treatment planning service. The films deal with a variety of life issues that are suitable for all ages, cultures and backgrounds. In the ongoing debate, does life imitate movies, or do movies imitate real life? One thing is clear: Movies solve many of our common problems. Some very practical answers and life choices are presented in a 90 to 180 minute reel. Therefore, films often give clients a glimpse into their own lives.
When I saw Field of Dreams in 1989, it became my slogan for the year, if you build it, they will come. These words of inspiration and hope encouraged me to step out in faith and achieve many goals. I’m sure I’ve seen the movie over 20 times and every time it’s the first. I was overwhelmed with emotion. The list of things I needed to build was filled with mind. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I sat in that dark theater as I identified the many things I wanted to do but was afraid to take risks. I slipped past my friend, entered the aisle, rushed to the back of the theater and cried like a baby. I regularly rent a video to remind me to follow my heart, listen to my inner voice and move forward. The film had an amazing healing effect. As clients connect with different characters, they are able to identify similarities and differences in their own stories. This is often a great bridge from reel to real.
People watch movies: Cinema is a global phenomenon seen by millions of people around the world. It has a strong impact, consciously or unconsciously, on people’s behavior. A 1993 Variety survey reported that worldwide box office sales had reached $8 billion and that home video rentals were also a lucrative business. Of the top 100 grossing films, 88 were American productions. We go to the movies for different reasons: some for magic, others for meaning. Movies can provide entertainment or a temporary escape from our reality. They can be relaxing or exciting and have become a way of coping for many. As therapists and counselors, we can make use of these readily available and easily accessible ancient resources.
What is Kinotherapy?
Cinematherapy is the use of films (actual versions or videos) by counselors as a therapeutic tool in the healing process of clients. It is not a discipline requiring specialized training like art therapy or music therapy. However, it should be performed by a mental health professional experienced in working with clients’ cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses. Depending on the client, the concept may be introduced formally or informally at two different points during treatment. The first opportunity comes during the initial assessment when gathering historical data. Most new clients usually indicate changes in behavior (especially in leisure activities). At this point I ask: What do you do for fun? Or Do you like movies? It is also a way to establish a relationship with the client. I briefly share my interest in movies, their positive therapeutic value, and that other clients have benefited from this experience. A second opportunity to introduce film therapy is when the client is discussing information that the counselors recall from a specific film or video. I share some similarities in plot, points of view/mindset and suggest that the client sees it. Then we plan to discuss his reaction at the next session.
Life Is Longer Than Movies: While the worlds of life and fiction are similar, they are also very different. Films often cover a continuum of development from childhood to adulthood. Since movies can cover a lifetime in about two hours, clients should be advised that implementing solutions may take longer than watching them. The real world is not always neatly packaged. We don’t know what will eventually happen in our own lives. However, we can become interested in fictional characters, find out what happens to them, and gain insight for our own problem-solving. Clients are usually able to point out how someone else should have handled the situation. They then explain what they would do differently. Films serve as catalysts that stimulate discussion leading to transparency and disclosure.
From the Reel To the Real: When clients watch movies, they compare them to their real-world knowledge of human behavior and what seems to be a plausible, likely, or consistent response of a person in a given situation. If the client decides that the emotions of the actors in the film are appropriate and convincing, given the circumstances of the narrative, they may be able to share emotions with the characters through empathy. Clients also engage in a comprehensive set of evaluations of the moral and ethical acceptability of the on-screen behavior of the characters and the sequence of events. As a result of their disclosure, you will be able to identify strengths and weaknesses in the way the individual processes information, as well as their ability to abstract, reason, and gather insights. When a client is viewing a film for use in cinema therapy, there are several categories that can be used as catalysts to get the person thinking about their own issues. Five are mentioned here: Listen for one-liners (eg There’s No Place Like Home The Wizard of Oz; You Can’t Handle the Truth A Few Good Men; Make My Day Dirty Harry; May the Power of Star Wars Be With You) . Look for themes (eg, facing your fears, revenge, starting a new life, extending forgiveness). Monitor relationship dynamics (eg, obsessive-compulsive, codependency, poor boundaries). Identify significant issues (abuse, anxiety, marriage, chronic illness). Test each movie by asking, does the movie demonstrate a violation or application of Scripture?
Assign Movies as Homework: If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the value of a movie. When movies are assigned as homework, the advisor should have a clear goal. Ask yourself, what do I hope to accomplish with my client through this film? Cinema Therapy is not just watching movies, but watching with a specific purpose. The films selected should address issues (Figure 1) facing the clients or be based on their areas of interest (eg action, drama, romance, comedy, western, sci-fi, fairy tale, etc.). Counselors should be advised that the film’s rating system (G General Audience, PG Parental Guidance, PG-13 Suitable for Teens, R Restricted/No one under 18 admitted without a parent or guardian) does not always accurately reflect the content of the film. Be sure to watch the film first and inform your client of material that may be inappropriate or offensive (eg profanity, nudity, explicit violence). Common sense should be used. Again, ask yourself: Is the film clinically, spiritually, and age appropriate? Clients can see a first-run movie at a local theater or rent a home video. Both places have their advantages.
In the theater they have widescreen viewing and no intermissions (interruptions). The benefits of home video include the ability to pause and replay certain scenes, as well as viewing in the privacy and comfort of your own home. Regardless of the location your clients choose, ask them to fill out a movie review sheet (Figure 2). Beyond the obvious, clients can be moved by a number of subtleties in the film. Be prepared to address concepts that the client may identify that you did not intend to address. Clients can also view a movie and not want to discuss it. There should be no pressure to make something happen. Documented information from the Movie Review Sheet can be used in a later session. If the client saw the film, he was affected (positively or negatively). Reality sets in Caroline’s case In my practice of cinematography, I have found that reality-based, rational-emotive and behavioral approaches are most effective. This does not limit the use of other theoretical directions as preferred by some consultants. Below is a brief synopsis of a case using a reality-based therapeutic intervention in conjunction with Cinema Therapy.
Caroline is a 38-year-old mother of three girls between the ages of 5 and 10. She recently divorced a physically, verbally and spiritually abusive narcissistic, bipolar man. During one of our sessions, Caroline discussed how her husband is impulsive and obsessive. A few things she said reminded me of the movie As Good As It Gets. Before sharing the similarities, I asked if she had seen the movie and her take on it. To my surprise, she hated the movie (I’ve seen it five or six times and recommended it to several other clients). It was a great moment. Caroline became angry as she shared how unrealistic the film seemed. She was worried that Helen Hunts character would marry Jack Nicholson because he was charming, but that she could forget his character flaws. Then Helen would end up like Caroline 10 years later, wondering how she could have missed the obvious signs of dysfunction. As a result of domestic violence, Caroline suffers from low self-esteem and severe depression. It was the first time she had expressed a strong opinion about something. We discussed the questions from the Film Review right in the session. This opened the door for us to work more efficiently. Caroline was not angry at the movie, but at herself for her poor judgment and bad decisions. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed of her situation, she withdrew from others (even those who cared about her well-being).
The film helped Caroline admit that although she was deeply hurt, she needed to connect with people to heal. At the same time, she needed to create new patterns of relating. She was also challenged to answer the question: What if it’s as good as it gets? Caroline began to assess her current reality and ask supplementary questions such as Who am I? What have I learned from my past experiences that can help me now? What do I want from life? What do I want from relationships? Will my current behavior help me achieve my desired goals? What am I willing to change? During the course of treatment, Caroline began to take personal responsibility for her life and create a plan. They learn to go out and trust their newfound knowledge. Find a therapist to help you work through your issues.
Since physical therapy can be used with a wide range of clients, it is not recommended for patients with severe psychiatric disorders. Counselors should be aware that watching certain actions in the film may cause clients to relive their pain. Be sensitive. Instead of assigning movies as homework, movie clips (5 to 10 minutes) can be watched in a session. After that, the content can be processed immediately. Cinema Therapy is an underutilized intervention and I believe it will grow in popularity as its application and effectiveness are better understood. Our lives can be seen as one long movie without a break. Consider the plot of The Truman Show. Meeting a new client is like walking into the middle of a movie. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what’s going on, even with the client providing flashbacks. Using film therapy is a way for counselors to engage clients in a non-threatening way as they share the plot of their stories.
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