Why Cinema Therapy?

About 4 years ago I completed my certification in Cinema Therapy. Cinema therapy uses the experience of getting lost in a film as a means to examine and experience themes and roles as part of individual psychotherapy. Obviously good movies engage and entertain us. Sometimes it helps to see another person go through struggles that resemble our own but that we can view from afar. A film used therapeutically can move a person towards greater insight and self-compassion.


In celebration of Women’s History Month I have chosen to share some thoughts on the film, Nomadland.  Actually just one thought, “listening.”

In Nomadland we follow Fern during her period of mourning her husband.  She becomes a van nomad due to economic reasons. She meets various people who have survived living the nomadic lifestyle; in some ways even thrived.

Fern talks little about her grief and loss.  In fact, she does much more listening than talking; learning the stories of the folks she meets. By day we see Fern working the most basic of jobs, cleaning bathrooms and packing boxes.  She meets many people and listens; to children, to young adults, to a male friend estranged from his son. Sometimes what she hears is simple – a child’s joy at playing with balloons, sometimes more complex like how a dying woman can feel so deeply happy about her life.  We are with Fern in this year of listening to others while grieving, until she is ready to choose her next life chapter.

I often talk to my psychotherapy students about listening.  It’s the first skill we learn in becoming psychotherapists and it remains the most powerful one in the toolbox.  When we listen well we create the space for stories.  It is the natural way that people come to terms with life’s difficulties.  And it is a place of deep connection. As a social scientist I recognize the many ways interdependence with others is our human survival strategy.  As a person I see the power of connection in times of trouble and I feel life affirmed.

Fern stays a time with the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a nomadic group.  They sit by the fire at night and share their stories.  Bob Wells is the leader and he shares with Fern about the mostly middle-aged and older folks in the group “Inevitably there’s grief and loss and a lot them don’t get over it either.  And that’s ok…one of the things I love most about this life is that there is no final good-bye.”  Fern nods to this synthesis of the stories of many of how dying and living can co-exist.  Bob has listened and now shared with Fern.  Although he speaks softly the message that we are all tied together is as loud as a highway at rush hour.

It’s not just women’s stories that show listening and joining with others as transformative actions.  But this woman director, Chloé Zhao, shows this story to us in such an unhurried, ordinary way.  The lesson is in the small moments of listening, while working, cleaning up, waiting for clothes in the dryer. You cannot help but be drawn in, feel the sadness of grief and come to know the healing touch of all the uniquely dented and damaged people that make up Nomadland.

Da 5 Bloods

PTSD is a common term nowadays. But when the Vietnam vets first found themselves struggling many doubted the existence of the syndrome.  It took longer to recognize other forms of PTSD, most recently the recognition of PTSD from long-term systemic racism.

In Da 5 Bloods we get to experience the lives of black men who have experienced both: war and racism.  Through flashbacks to bloody combat, we learn of the experiences that led to the jumpiness, nightmares, substance abuse and relationship loss.  Combat PTSD sucks the oxygen out of life as symptoms spiral through a veteran’s life after combat. Paul is a vet who gets jumpy when the market traders in Vietnam push their wares. His son David loves him enough to follow him to Vietnam just to protect him, yet David does not feel his dad’s love.  The men talk about PTSD, VA treatments and generally try to support each other.

They also talk about racism. In these chats we hear a resignation to circumstances and a desire to just make life ok for now.  The most potent comments about racism – the stats over representations of black men in Vietnam, the contrast between fighting for America while civil rights for black men were a struggle back home – were narrated by Hanoi Hannah in a flashback radio show from the North Vietnam’s troop demoralization campaign. We see Hannah speaking interspersed with images of the civil rights struggles. We see the moment in 1964 when the Bloods learn about MLK’s assassination. Sad and distressed, but not surprised. Why should they be?

Systemic abuse is not about single moments or events.  It is more like abuse in families, when members support the abuser and establish long-term conditions of maltreatment.  You see less overt struggle with the threat and greater alteration of the sense of self and place in the world.  The Bloods acknowledge racism without overt distress. When they see the opportunity to gain wealth, there is excitement at the opportunity to get some just reward in an otherwise unfair world.   

As viewers, we see flashback news coverage of civil rights protests interspersed with these men’s story.  And I believe that might be Spike Lee’s most powerful point. Systemic racism is not just about protests in the streets – it is about the daily struggle to just live under those conditions… especially for those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. 

The Hate You Give


The Hate U Give is a must-see movie determined to make a point about the roots of hate. We are living in a time of crisis over racism. It cannot hurt to deepen understanding and start a dialogue.

But cinematherapy is about the individually felt experience. In this film, the main character, Starr Carter, draws us into her struggle to understand the world and become herself in it. We see her being raised in an African-American family that has long been part of a poor black community. Her parents are doing well enough with their grocery store to send her to a mostly white, wealthy private school. This is a source of conflict between the parents, which Starr witnesses. However, the larger conflict is between Starr’s separate selves: the one who grew up in the black community, freely playing between homes under the watchful eyes of local grandmothers, and the one living the life of a prep school student. Most mornings, Starr leaves her neighborhood in a hoodie, her school uniform hidden underneath. Then, the hoodie is stuffed into a backpack and Starr becomes part of the cliquish world of an affluent white high school.


It isn’t just a clothing change; through narration, Starr tells us how she changes her speech and thought processes as she tries to be a different version of herself. Although she describes it matter-of-factly, we can see the stress it puts on her: her strained face and her looks of confusion, frustration, and even exasperation. As tensions are heightened, she is no longer able to keep her worlds separate. And so, the wall between the different parts of the self crumble. There are some tears, but in the end, she finds her voice and a sense of peace. No longer the tense girl on a tightrope, Starr walks confidently between her worlds.


THUG is a coming-of-age story, but one that shows what it is like to come of age in a world complicated by racism and shifting cultural contexts. In a country that is simultaneously growing more diverse and more tense, this is a movie to see to understand today’s youth.


December 2017 – I, Tonya


December’s selection, I, Tonya, depicts a version of the real life story of Tonya Harding and “the incident” in which her husband and associates plotted to injure her skating competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. The story is shared documentary style giving us a bit more insight into what Tanya and those close to her were thinking and feeling.

Figure skating is one of the aesthetic sports which puts additional strain on body image; a risk factor for eating disorders. Women know they are judged in this sport on the appearance of their movements AND sometimes themselves. Beauty standards can reflect cultural biases. American women are diverse in how we look, the backgrounds we come from and how we use language to speak up for ourselves. What we learn in this story is the pressure Ms. Harding felt to fit the US figure skating’s standards on an off the ice.

Raised in a lower class family, her costumes were hand sewn first by her mother. She lacked some of the accessories other girls had off the ice. Her mother argued with her teacher that these were not things the family could afford but this, in figure skating, was not an excuse.

As Ms. Harding skills outpaced other girls her competition scores remained low. She complained that the judges marked her down for not acting like a more upper class, traditionally feminine girl. After confronting a judge her fears were confirmed, US Figure Skating did not want a rough and tough girl for their national image. This drove Ms. Harding to work even harder to excel until her skating skills could not be ignored. She was the first woman to perform the triple axel in competition.

Hers could have been the story of overcoming a restrictive expectation for female athletes. Stop for a second and think of all the stories of bad behavior we tolerate in men’s college football, for example. We still celebrate them. For most of her career Ms. Harding faced criticism for simply being rough in language and mannerism. And yet she persisted.

Most know the story of how her skating career ended. Maybe with the distance and this film we can examine some other facets of these events. Strong and talented women come from many different backgrounds. Isn’t that what makes for a great American sports story?

April 2017 – Lion

What can I say about the heart-warming, true story film, Lion? Sometimes it’s worthwhile to see a film just to remind yourself about the power of love. That certainly comes through strongly in this story. What’s unique is the nature of the relationship. The main character Saroo, loves his girlfriend, adoptive parents and brother deeply, but yearns for his birth family. The Australian parents love both their sons adopted from India as young children. This is not the “everything is neat” view of adoption. Both boys came with issues from and connections to the past. We get to see that we are the sum total of our past, even the parts that may be faintly or incompletely recalled. Feelings and sensory memories like sights and smell stay with us.

This is not a movie that says love conquers all. This is the movie that says love puts up a brave fight in facing adversity and change. Heroes know this and endure. Here is hoping you find the hero within yourself.

February 2017 – Zootopia

Congratulations to the cast and crew of Zootopia for winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film 2016!

Before I was a cinema therapist, I was a cinema parent. That is I used the children’s movies my daughters watched to talk to them. I could share my thoughts on life’s lessons. It also helped me understand their concerns and personality inclinations. Try asking a child what they like about their favorite character or part of a movie and you may well get a glimpse into how they see the world.

In Zootopia, there are several “lesson” opportunities. A central focus of the movie is bullying. Characters are bullied and must choose how to respond. Although they struggle, some do succeed in overcoming, thereby creating a their own happy ending.

Zootopia also takes on the challenges of tolerance in a diverse society. This more complex theme may not be as understandable for younger children but may be a way for adults and older siblings to engage in some dialog. I was struck by the treatment of the subject here. The issues were not all resolved and the main character, Officer Hopps, acknowledges “life is a bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker.” Her bravery is in facing that truth and persevering. And that is what makes her a hero of cinema therapy!

January 2017 – Split

This month I won’t be going out to see a recent movie. Split came to theaters last week depicting a villain with dissociative identity disorder (DID) who captures and tortures 3 young women.

Let me pause first to share a few facts. First women outnumber men in being diagnosed with this disorder. The disorder results from extreme childhood trauma that renders individuals significantly impaired in work and family life. Even so, individuals with serious mental illness like this do not commit violent crime more than the general population. Individuals with mental illness are stigmatized and suffer from a lack of support and resources.

I am not sure I can watch this disorder vilified. I know that thrillers make great entertainment. However so do compassionate stories of survival and healing such as the depiction by Sally Field of DID in Sybil (1976) or the more recent Frankie & Alice (2010).

So for this month it is movie night at home. See you at the cinema next month!

December 2016 – Jackie

Recently I saw Jackie by director, Pablo Larraín. This film examined trauma and death in ways that I felt could help clients. The film Jackie tells the story of the assassination of President Kennedy from the perspective of his wife, first lady Jackie Kennedy. We all know about the national loss, but in this film we get a glimpse into her traumatic experience of the event and the hazy, disorientation that followed. I give much credit to actress Natalie Portman for portraying the quietly tense and internally surreal mental state that follows trauma.

Another clear theme in this film is death. Jackie struggles with her husband’s death as it also raises prior grief, regarding the loss of her unborn and infant children. Her sadness is clear as is her confusion in accepting what is to be her future. A family priest serves as grief counselor as she attempts to transcend the tragedy and move towards meaning. And because this event was felt worldwide, her meaning came to be part of our story as a nation.