A few years ago, as I taught one of my first classes at the University of Toronto, I was trying to get across some research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to my students. I showed a clip from an excellent film titled, “Brothers”. Starring Tobey Maguire, as a war veteran suffering from PTSD, Jake Gyllenhaal, as Tobey’s brother, and Natalie Portman, as Tobey’s wife, ‘Brothers’ depicts the three main characters as they struggle with the devastation PTSD can cause. Somehow, I found that ‘Brothers’ brought to life my lecture on PTSD better than I could have ever expressed it in words. The symptoms – emotional arousal, for instance – can be spoken to at length, but to watch them depicted in film brings a reality and gravity to the situation that the intellectualization of the disorder never could. In other words, it helped my students connect with the material. In fact, movies tend to help most of us connect in ways that can sometimes feel hard to explain.
Perhaps it is that mechanism that makes cinema therapy so wonderful. As researcher Dr. Sorina Daniela Dumtrache writes,
“Cinema-therapy refers to the use of movies as a support for the individual’s personal and interpersonal development and it represents a promising method that enhances both the attractiveness of the therapeutic process and the depth of a significant personal and relational development.”
In a therapeutic setting, a therapist recommends a film that is relevant to a client’s life. The idea would then be that the client seeking therapy would watch the film, identify with it in some way, perhaps learn some practical skills to deal with similar issues, and, in some cases, offer deep emotional experiences which lead to feelings of acceptance.
For instance, if someone has found themselves in a situation where they feel unreasonably jealous of a friend who is about to be married, watching the comedy ‘Bridesmaids’ may offer some insight into why they may be feeling that way – the main character is lonely, upset, with feelings of self-doubt, and, on top of everything, now feels that she is being replaced as her childhood friend’s best friend by another woman. By the end of the film however, she realizes that this other woman is just as lonely and craving of friendship as she is, and that there is so much to be gained around her. Throughout the film, she also learns to cope with stress in a healthier way. As noted by Dr. Jeremy Clyman, “watching the protagonist from “Bridesmaids” feel better about herself after some engaged baking, teaches the behavioral-activation lesson that identification of and engagement in positive events improves well-being.”
In other words, we can use the power of movies to heal and to grow. This has certainly been found to be true in diminishing anxiety for young people, as Dr. Dumtrache’s research shows. In her study, which sought to create a personal development program for students based on cinema therapy and identify the effects of it, Dr. Dumtrache asked 60 participants, to either participate in the cinema therapy program or continue as is. Participants in the cinema therapy group were asked to discuss the types of movies they wanted to watch as well as identifying their needs and problems. They were then asked to focus on their mood and experiences, and watched 10 movies over time, each covering a range of topics including self-discovery or self-exploration, social relationships, childhood and family, death, and even paranormal interests. After watching the films, the students who participated in the cinema therapy group had a significant drop in anxiety compared to students who continued without any therapeutic treatment.
Another study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that couples who watched one movie per week with their significant other and discussed eleven open-ended questions about the movie and how it relates to their relationship as a couple for about 45 minutes following each movie, not only had results comparable to couples who went to counselling, but had a divorce rate of 11%; 13% lower than the couples who received no therapeutic intervention. Some of the films in the study included Gone with the Wind, Love Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and A Star Is Born.
The key, however, is not simply to watch a movie, but to connect with it through asking yourself or your partner some questions which give way to reflection: What was the main relationship portrayed in the movie? Are any of the problems faced by a character or a couple similar to the problems you have faced or might face as a couple? Did the protagonist deal with problems in a productive way? What happened in this movie that might lead you to think differently about your life?
By connecting, reflecting, and considering what happens in films, we can gain an awareness of ourselves, which helps us learn about ourselves and our habits, and, ultimately, heal.