Movies may be an escape from reality for some, but they are also deep reflections of our culture and our inner lives as human beings.
When we gather to watch a film, it’s a collective experience and one that can have a profound impact on our emotions and our thoughts. We can peer into other worlds, both real and imagined.
Cinema therapy uses this impact as a catalyst for healing. Clients watch a film with the intention of seeing themselves reflected. They may relate to the characters or find that their experience is quite different. This information can be brought to a therapy session and used to explore the client’s inner world.
Let’s explore how this therapy works and what the benefits are, plus we’ll add a few suitable recommendations.
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In ancient Greece, the theater was used as a means of catharsis. It was believed that audiences would experience relief when they shared the emotions of the players. A catharsis or purging of emotion would result through this process of empathy, and audiences would leave the theater with a feeling of purification (Wu, 2008).
Freud renewed the concept of catharsis with his theory that unearthing and releasing repressed emotions would lead to relief and eventual happiness (Wu, 2008).
In more modern times, therapists have used bibliotherapy in a similar fashion. The therapist suggests a book to the client that contains characters living through a similar experience. The client reads the book and discusses it with the therapist, using the story to gain insight into their own choices and thoughts.
Cinema therapy was developed as an offshoot of bibliotherapy and follows in the footsteps of these older practices using movies instead of theater or books.
How Does Cinema Therapy Work?
The therapist assigns a film to a client, choosing it specifically to reflect a core aspect of the client’s work.
The client watches the film independently and brings their input to the next session. This tool can also be used for couples and families (Dermer & Hutchings, 2000).
Birgit Wolz (n.d.), PhD, MFT, is a psychotherapist who writes about cinema therapy and facilitates cinema therapy groups. She has identified five guidelines for choosing a film for your client.
Laughter as medicine
Wolz (n.d.) suggests that films can be chosen as a way to laugh about and create distance from a problem a client may obsess over. Rather than a pure escape, it is an opportunity to find a fresh perspective.
Crying for emotional catharsis
Sometimes we are going through a grieving process, but allowing ourselves to feel the emotions fully can be difficult. A movie may provide the emotional release needed.
Gaining hope and encouragement
A movie may provide a hopeful and uplifting solution to the problem, providing the client with inspiration and optimism.
Questioning negative beliefs and rediscovering your strengths
By following a character through their ups and downs, a client may feel less alone and find that they also share the strengths that the character discovers.
Characters often show where communication can break down. Choosing to watch a film with a partner, friend, or family member may create an opportunity to improve communication.
After selecting and assigning the movie, the client moves into the observation stage. They are encouraged to watch the movie actively, noticing what they feel and think in the process. Researchers have presented four main stages that occur during the process of cinema therapy (Sacilotto et al., 2022).
The client identifies with the character because of their shared behavior and goals and notices the character’s feelings and emotions.
The client may find that they learn through the character’s experiences.
The client internalizes the character’s experience and develops a connection between their shared experience.
The client no longer feels as alone because they see their own experience reflected.
Culture should also be considered, and clinicians should choose movies where the clients will see their own culture and identities represented (Dunham & Dermer, 2020).
Movie ideas for your sessions
Wolz also provides many examples of movies that fit each of the previously mentioned categories. On her website, she has an extensive library with hundreds of suggestions. Here is a short list of some commonly prescribed films:
While simply watching a movie will not necessarily create significant change, there is some clinical evidence that movies followed by a therapeutic session have beneficial outcomes (Egeci & Gencoz, 2017).
Outcomes are improved when the clinician carefully considers a client’s preferences, goals, interests, and comprehension ability (Sacilotto et al., 2022).
The primary benefits of movie therapy are insight, catharsis, and feeling less alone. Clients relate to the characters in the films and understand themselves in new ways. And similar to the experience of connection found in group therapy, they feel they are not alone in what they are experiencing.
Does movie therapy help with depression?
Case studies have shown that cinema therapy can be a beneficial tool in increasing optimism and decreasing hopelessness in individuals with depression. Movie therapy helped clients become more aware of the causes of their depression and aided in initiating change (Heston & Kottman, 1997; Powell, 2008).
Movie therapy also has the potential to help individuals discover and develop their strengths (Niemiec, 2020). A therapist could have a client take a strengths survey and identify their top strengths. Then they could choose a movie with a character who either exemplifies or is developing these strengths. Niemiec (2020) provides a list of movies based on character strengths.
A Look at Movie Couples Therapy and Family Therapy
Movie therapy research has relied primarily on case studies and is mostly descriptive.
The reason for this is because of the need to choose films that will uniquely suit the client’s needs.
While many couples and families have similar issues when they arrive in therapy, they differ enough that completing a large-scale study would be difficult.
One small study that examined six couples applied several different films that explored problem-solving abilities, managing stressful situations, not recognizing a partner’s point of view, lacking skills in recognizing or expressing thoughts and feelings, and a general tendency toward negative attributes (Egeci & Gencoz, 2017).
These researchers found that the participants moved through the stages of identification and catharsis; however, not all of them found insight. Nonetheless, the movies were helpful in facilitating discussion and providing an opportunity to relate to their problems in a new way.
In another small study, pre-adolescent children whose parents were going through a divorce were given movie therapy to help process their feelings around the separation (Marsick, 2010).
The study found that through the use of movies and follow-up sessions, the children were better able to identify and express their feelings, experienced a catharsis of anger and sadness, developed coping skills for dealing with parental divorce, and felt less alone (Marsick, 2010).
“Cinema Therapy” is a popular YouTube channel run by licensed therapist Jonathan Decker and professional filmmaker Alan Seawright. They discuss movies as an opportunity to explore relationships and mental health topics. In this episode, they are discussing family dynamics through the Harry Potter series.
The Weasleys: Five keys to a happy family
Cinema Therapy & Anger Management
One study described the use of cinema therapy in a girls’ residential treatment facility. They implemented a series of monthly cinema therapy group sessions. The movies were pertaining to mother–child relationships, absent fathers, friendships, and peer identification (Bierman et al., 2003).
The researchers found that during the sessions following the movies, the girls could identify and work through some conflicts and express their feelings about their family and social relationships more readily than in their individual therapy sessions (Bierman et al., 2003).
The “Cinema Therapy” YouTube channel has a series of videos examining villains. They call it “villain therapy” and explore the origin stories and often misunderstood characters that make up the “bad guys” in movies. This type of exploration could be beneficial in working through catharsis around anger and aggression.
Villain Therapy: Cruella
4 Helpful Worksheets for Your Sessions
A critical piece of the work that is done during a cinema therapy session is identifying thoughts and beliefs that may be harmful or dysfunctional.
An overarching goal of the work is for the client to discover a new perspective. These worksheets can help facilitate that process.
Thought Record Worksheet This worksheet helps clients monitor their thoughts and emotions. It is particularly useful for clients with negative thought patterns.
Disputing Irrational Beliefs This worksheet helps a client challenge a belief that may not be serving them.
Fact-Checking Thoughts This worksheet gives clients an opportunity to check whether a thought is a fact or an opinion.
Questions for Challenging Thoughts This worksheet contains a list of questions that a client can use to challenge a thought or belief.
9 Questions to Ask Your Clients
Following the viewing of a movie with a therapy session has been shown to have the best outcomes.
Using deep and thought-provoking questions can help clients identify their insights and connection to the characters. Wolz (n.d.) has suggested these questions:
Do you remember your feelings and sensations, or whether your breathing changed throughout the movie?
What did you like, and what didn’t you like or even hate about the movie?
Did you identify with one or several characters?
Did a character develop certain capacities that you would like to develop as well?
Did you see one or several characters who modeled behavior in certain parts of the film that you would like to emulate?
Did these character(s) develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would also like to gain?
Imagine yourself as one of these characters when you watch the movie. Imagine yourself with the mature or wise aspects of the character’s personality.
What would your life look like if you had the character’s qualities or capacities?
Imagine yourself using these qualities or capacities in your life.
Which parts of the movie touched you most?
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
PositivePsychology.com has wonderful free resources for clinicians and coaches to integrate into their practice. For cinema therapy sessions with individuals, tools for investigating thoughts and identifying strengths would be especially beneficial.
Cinema therapy is a new tool used by therapists to help foster insight and spark change in clients. It can be useful for breaking through resistance and for facilitating a conversation.
Cinema therapy can be used in individual sessions, in groups, with couples, or with families. It has been shown to be beneficial in aiding communication and breaking down barriers to intimacy. Families may find it helpful to process big changes like moving or divorce, and couples may find it helpful for relationship difficulties.
In a group setting, clients may learn to see new points of view and feel less alone in their process. Movies can be a powerful way to bring people together and provide a stepping stone to seeing others’ perspectives.
Bierman, J. S., Krieger, A. R., & Leifer, M. (2003). Group cinematherapy as a treatment modality for adolescent girls. Residential Treatment for Children & Youth, 21(1), 1–15.
Dermer, S. B., & Hutchings, J. B. (2000). Utilizing movies in family therapy: Applications for individuals, couples, and families. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 28(2), 163–180.
Dunham, S. M., & Dermer, S. B. (2020). Cinematherapy with African American couples. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76(8), 1472–1482.
Egeci, I. S., & Gencoz, F. (2017). Use of cinematherapy in dealing with relationship problems. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 53, 64–71.
Heston, M. L., & Kottman, T. (1997). Movies as metaphors: A counseling intervention. The Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 36(2), 92–99.
Marsick, E. (2010). Cinematherapy with preadolescents experiencing parental divorce: A collective case study. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 37(4), 311–318.
Niemiec, R. (2020). Character strengths cinematherapy: Using movies to inspire change, meaning, and cinematic elevation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76(8), 1447–1462.
Powell, M. L. (2008). Cinematherapy as a clinical intervention: Theoretical rationale and empirical credibility. University of Arkansas.
Sacilotto, E., Salvato, G., Villa, F., Salvi, F., & Bottini, G. (2022). Through the looking glass: A scoping review of cinema and video therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.
Wolz, B. (n.d.). Cinematherapy.com. Retrieved from https://www.cinematherapy.com/.
Wu, A. Z. (2008). Applying cinema therapy with adolescents and a cinema therapy workshop. California State University.
About the author
Dr. Amanda O'Bryan is a certified wellness coach and specializes in using evidence-based practices to empower her clients to shift the ways that stress and anxiety impact their lives. She also works as a freelance writer, creating psychoeducational content. Her goal with writing is to help people understand themselves better by presenting cognitive science in a fun and interesting way.