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A therapeutic screening - the healing power of film stories

The pandemic has clearly shown us how important films are for our mental health as a remedy for emotional crises. In September 2020, the Polish Association of New Cinemas launched a social campaign entitled ‘Cinema is emotion’ with an aim to encourage viewers to return to cinemas after a break caused by sanitary restrictions and to convince them that ‘cinema makes us more human’.

At the same time, Netflix launched a global campaign called ‘We are one story away’, promoting its passion for creating and telling the best stories where everyone can find the right one that is helpful them. Were the above slogans just catchy marketing phrases, or indeed - by watching films we can get closer to both others and ourselves, and look at the world from an entirely new perspective?  

The demand for stories on screen is confirmed by financial analyses showing that after periods of recession, the sales figures of films, especially those described as pop-corn cinema, i.e. clearly entertaining, filled with humour and colour and, in some genres, special effects, are on the rise. The films we choose when we want to escape from the mundane everyday life and bad news in the media meet the criteria for the category of delightful films, as defined by film expert Grażyna Stachówna.  According to her, a film described as delightful must be a masterfully made, optimistic work with a perfect balance between laughter and emotions, kind towards its characters, based on traditional values, treating the audience with respect and have an obligatory happy ending. In a delightful film, no one, neither the characters nor the audience, is ashamed of showing weakness, tenderness, kindness, tears, naivety, trust or friendliness. Everyone takes risks, suffers and may be defeated, but they always recover, often with the help of other people. Stachówna included in this category such works as the British romantic comedy ‘Notting Hill’ (1999) by Roger Mitchell and the French hit ‘Amelia’ (2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but there is no mandatory unanimity with regard to this issue as different audiences find different films delightful. Looking for a film that makes you happier is an adventure because the essence lies not in the genre but in the atmosphere and the message. Sometimes the therapeutic function can be fulfilled by art-house works, such as ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000), by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, who told a story about the longing for true closeness showing his Asian protagonists in an engaging and universal way.

As observed by the French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, the secret of the enormous popularity of film is rooted in the spontaneous naturalness with which people assimilate the visual language of film images, i.e. the ‘natural Esperanto’ of the contemporary civilisation. Because of the universality of the cinematic language,  contact with film art is often an intuitive attempt to obtain psychological self-help applied by people who feel that they are confronted with a problem that surpasses them, chronic stress or a difficult decision. Siegfried Kracauer, a German film historian, has described a film work as a safe mirror in which the viewer can look at quite frightening things about themselves, evoking the metaphor of the reflection of Medusa’s terrifying head in Perseus’ shield. Thus, it is an object of symbolic-projection work also known in other psychotherapeutic currents that use parables, fairy tales and myths.

What are the benefits of contact with a film for a viewer who is struggling with difficult emotional states resulting from external conditions or/and internal dilemmas as well as the feeling of inability to influence their own life? In this situation, the most important factors that may prove helpful are: escapism, i.e. the mechanism of detachment from reality that reduces stress, the possibility of identification with the film’s characters, the projection of one’s own emotions as well as the possibility of catharsis. In the case of escapism, entertaining films work best, as they help to relieve tension without delving into one’s own emotions. There are other principles that govern reception based on identification - the process when the viewer identifies with the protagonist, which is the key to explaining the viewer’s emotional involvement in the world of film fiction. Referring to Sigmund Freud’s understanding of identification, Jean Louis Baudry, a representative of the psychoanalytic film theory, proposed a model of the so-called double identification. Primary identification occurs between the viewer and the camera, which makes the spectacle possible. Film means – the perspective and angles of the camera, the changing sets - give the viewer the feeling of entering the reality on the screen and at the same time enable him or her the so-called secondary identification - with the world presented and its characters. Representatives of the cognitive film theory, on the other hand, emphasise the creative and active attitude of the viewer. In their opinion, the mechanism of the viewer’s involvement in the film is based on sympathising with the character without identifying with him or her. Avoiding the notion of ‘identification’, they prefer to speak of a ‘structure of sympathy’ or ‘interests’ and emphasise that cinema is an emotional machine capable of evoking authentic feelings, despite the viewer’s awareness that he or she is dealing only with an artefact.

Based on these assumptions, the method of the so-called cinematherapy was created in the USA in the 1980s. Its creator, Gary Solomon, an American professor of psychology and the author of the book ‘The Motion Picture Prescription’, came up with the idea to use films for therapeutic work, assuming that watching them could have a positive impact on mental health. The concept involves choosing films with themes that reflect the viewer’s current problem or situation, in the belief that doing so will help them access deeply hidden emotions. For example, if someone has a substance abuse problem, Solomon advises looking for films whose storylines focus on addiction. In this case we are dealing with what is known as suggestive therapy, which involves stepping into the shoes of specific characters or events and trying to understand oneself. In such a conscious reception of a film work, the viewer primarily tries to draw conclusions from his or her own reactions to specific scenes. He or she looks for parallels between himself or herself and the characters in an attempt to change his or her life.

Another method is used by film therapist Brigit Wolz, the author of ‘The Cinema Therapy Workbook’. In her opinion, a film does not have to be directly related to the problems of the viewer and correspond to his or her situation. It is more important that it releases blocked emotions and feelings - e.g. deeply hidden sadness, anger or grief - and thus opens him or her up on different levels. Such cathartic therapy used with people struggling with depression aims to make them cry or laugh and, as a consequence, pull them out of their emotional stupor. Unlike visiting a psychologist, while watching films we do not analyse ourselves directly but the situation of the film character. That is why even people who rarely allow themselves to react emotionally in everyday situations may cry during a screening. The right presentation of the protagonist’s story causes emotions bordering on tears, which has a cleansing power of catharsis - the discharge of feelings and the recuperation of blocked tensions, repressed emotions, thoughts and imagination. This is because the experience accompanying an emotional and artistic experience suspends the control of a person’s defence mechanisms, ego and social control mechanisms. In the case of a visit to the cinema, the situation itself is conducive to it. There is darkness in the hall, you solely focus on the screen, you are relaxed and sitting in a comfortable position, you are alone, your mental functions, including critical ones, are suspended and, finally, external impulses do not interfere with your emotional tension.

Therapists sometimes create lists of films that can serve as support for working with specific problems (loss of loved ones, family conflicts, fears and phobias, depression, anorexia, intimate relationships or a marriage crisis). However, there is no ready-made list of films useful in specific situations. In fact, each therapist selects them according to his or her own key, although there are some recurring titles, e.g. films by Ingmar Bergman or Krzysztof Kieślowski. 

Cinematherapy is thus a process of dynamic interaction between the patient’s personality and a film selected especially for them.

This process, with the help of the therapist, creates a psychological space for the patient to explore his or her problems, increase his or her self-reflection skills and understand himself or herself, thus opening up a wider field of life choices, both in terms of behaviour and emotional reactions. 

So can the cinema be an alternative to a meeting with a therapist? Cinematherapy can be used as a technique to support classical psychotherapy and, like any art therapy, it can play cathartic, compensatory and general developmental functions. It is worth considering it, as it significantly reduces resistance in the therapeutic process. However, it cannot be treated as an equivalent of classical psychotherapy. The interaction between the patient’s personality and the film cannot replace what is essential for psychotherapy: the ‘I-You’ relation, i.e. the real contact between two people. Therefore, we should not analyse our feelings and emotions during the film, but simply observe them, noticing which behaviours are good for us and which evoke negative feelings. The reactions and observations will later be discussed with the therapist.

Reference literature

Edgar Morin, Naturalne esperanto, „Kultura Filmowa” 1970 issue 4/5, p. 114—121.
Małgorzata Kozubek, Filmoterapia. Teoria i praktyka, Gdańsk 2016.
Gary Solomon, The Motion Picture Prescription. Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning, Santa Rosa 1995.
Birgit Wolz, E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation, Glenbridge 2004.

About the author

Elżbieta Wiącek – hold a PhD in Art Sciences.  Since 2005 she has been working as an assistant professor at the Institute of Regional Studies, currently the Institute of the Intercultural Studies, of the Jagiellonian University. Her publications include Mniej uczęszczane ścieżki do raju. O filmach Jima Jarmuscha (2001), Filmowe podróże Abbasa Kiarostamiego (2004) and Semiotyczna mapa Małopolski (ed., 2015). In 2014 she was a fellow of the Skalny Center at the University of Rochester in the USA. In 2013-2014 she participated in the project Do Not Be Deaf to Culture. An Analysis of Opportunities and Barriers to the Participation of Deaf People in the Cultural and Artistic Life financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as part of the Observatory of Culture programme. Her research interests include semiotics of culture, the cinema of the Middle East, anthropology of images, contemporary mythologies, multicultural and transcultural issues as well as postmodernism.