06 July 2011

Art fixes life: cinema therapy

Stories have always inspired and healed people. A therapist explains why he finds cinema therapy so effective in helping people through trauma and recovery.


Stories have inspired and healed many people since the dawn of humankind. Tom Pecca, a trauma and addictions therapist, explains how and why he finds modern-day stories via cinema  so effective in helping people through trauma and recovery.

During his eight years as therapist working with addicts and survivors of trauma, most of whom had been in numerous treatment centres and spent years in therapy, Pecca combined his therapeutic skills with his experience as actor and director to develop cinema therapy as an addition to standard talk therapy. He uses films to help people make connections with the issues in their lives. In this article, Pecca explores the origins of this modality and how it works.

What is cinema therapy?

In its simplest terms cinema therapy can be described as, the use of film to evoke, emotion, movement or to make a therapeutic point to a client in therapy. It has also been described as “a therapeutic process in which clients and therapists discuss themes and characters in popular films that relate to core issues of ongoing therapy (Hesley, 1997)".

The origins

The use of cinema as a therapeutic technique has been linked to bibliotherapy  (Caron), which is the use of literature to create a “therapeutic interaction” with a client (Hynes, 1986). It is common practice that a therapist will hand a book to a client to help them understand a subject better, or connect to emotion, just as in cinema therapy. Cinema therapy is linked to the ancient art of using story as a teaching tool. Since the dawn of humankind and cave paintings, we have used story to teach and inspire.

The medicine men would tell legends and stories to the tribe to teach them both what to do and what not to do. Mythology is filled with stories of hero’s, villains, trials and tribulations, all to show man how to move forward or not fall back. Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and many great spiritual teachers used a story or parable as a way to inspire and teach. It is very much a part of the Jewish, Native American and Christian tradition to use stories, as exemplified in rabbinical teachings, tribal lore and the stories of the Bible both new and old testaments. This tradition was carried forth into the fairy tales that we were told as children, always looking for the moral of the story.

From the written word and the storyteller, theater was born, and while entertaining, it was also moralistic. In fact much of early theater beyond the Greeks was church-driven and meant to teach. Great literature and bibliotherapy are other links in this chain. As early as 1840, Sir Walter Galt cataloged fictional and nonfictional literature recommended by psychiatrists (Hesley, 1997). Finally we advance to the newest form of storytelling – cinema and all that it comprises. Much of film is based on mythology in general, Joseph Campbell’s theories more specifically.

Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey discussed this very issue. According to him “the ideas expressed in Campbell’s book (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) are having a major impact on storytelling”. He also suggests that “filmmakers like George Lucas and George Miller acknowledge their debt to Campbell and his influence can be seen in the films of Steven Spielberg, John Boorman, Francis Coppola and others".

The reason this correlates to the topic is that Campbell’s work is about the role of the hero in myths, one grows into that role. One of the main tenets of therapy is the growth of the individual and helping them gain power in their lives, what I often call becoming the hero of their own story.

How does cinema therapy work?

An example of cinema therapy could be a client who was having difficulty getting in touch with emotion around the relationship between a father and son, or struggled with understanding the impact their father may have had on their lives, a therapist might ask them to watch Life as a House

This is a film in which Kevin Kline plays a man who finds out he is dying. As he looks back at his life, he sees all the failures and unhappiness embodied in the house his father built. The house is falling apart and in need of serious repair but the foundation is good and it can be rebuilt. With the central theme around his own father, this character looks to his own teenage son who is struggling with issues of addiction and sexuality which in part stem from his relationship with Kevin Kline’s character (his father).

Through much struggle and pain, part of which is revealing his relationship with his own father, the two start to rebuild the house before the character’s death. In this brief overview of the movie you can easily see the metaphor and therapeutic opportunities for a client who is also struggling with similar if not identical issues.

Cinema therapy can be used to help clients understand almost any issue as cinema covers an extremely broad scope of themes. In his book Reel Therapy Dr Gary Solomon talks about how the modality works using the concept of “suspension of disbelief”.

The following is an excerpt:

"If I can get people to suspend their disbelief and accept the story of the characters as real-life situations, I can help them see themselves, their family, or friends through the movie they’re watching. You see, suspension of disbelief is the mirror image of denial. Each of the movies can, for many people, bring out some emotional attachment to the stories and characters long enough [to] help them deal with their own problems and issues. My experience in using movies for this purpose is that clients and patients move more rapidly through the denial stage of their treatment when they use the movies I have recommended to bring themselves out of denial" (Solomon, 2001).

Dr Solomon also talks about the concept of “paradoxical healing” in this excerpt:

Take Leaving Las Vegas, for example. Here is a man who has given up on life and decides to drink himself to death. He meets a woman who tries, in her own way, to stop him. You think of this couple as a bad accident waiting to happen. By watching this behaviour, I believe we can learn through their mistakes so we can do just the opposite. That is paradoxical healing and healing by proxy (Solomon, 2001).

These are two examples of how cinema therapy can and does work. Another way is creating empathy. For many clients there is a great need for empathy in order to grow, in fact it is often necessary to be able to see yourself as part of something greater and feel for the struggles and triumphs of others in order to achieve your own.

Film offers us the opportunity to create empathy. It is a safe modality to feel whatever you feel since there is no real human being that you are interacting with. Film elicits emotion, that is why people choose to pay money to view movies. Films also introduce clients to ideas that might be too threatening if suggested directly (Hesley, 1997). Hesley discussed Stephen S. Pearce’s views on metaphors in Flash of Insight. “Narrative and metaphor afford individuals the opportunity to distance themselves from events in their own experiences and become the protagonist in their own lives’ narratives” (Hesley, 1997).


The following video clip is from the movie Parenthood. This is an excellent movie that can be used to look at family dysfunction and the ways it carries over from one generation to the next. The fact that it is a comedy makes it easier for us to digest. In this clip, Steve Martin takes his family to a baseball game. This triggers him to think about his own childhood and the direction for his life. Martin’s character has decided to be the antithesis of his father and tries to create the perfect environment for his children. The irony is that no matter how much he tries, his family is not perfect and he cannot fix his own issues by being the man his father was not.

This is from Life is Beautiful and it is the scene where the main character risks his life to protect his child. They are in a concentration camp and he makes up a story to protect the boy that it is all a game. It is one of the funniest and yet tragic scenes in film.


This clip is from a film called Torchsong Trilogy starring Harvey Firestien who wrote and directed it as well. The film is about a gay man and his struggles with his sexuality and relationships in general. This clip is the culmination of an argument with his mother. It highlights the subject of homosexuality but also relationships with parents and acceptance.

Powerful tools

I find cinema therapy to be highly effective modality; that has been in existence in one form or another since the beginnings of man, teaching man. As previously stated the concepts of Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and the Power of Myth can be used to show clients that although they have struggled they have also gained from that struggle. Movies such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter exemplify this message.

I believe it is proven that parable, story and myth are powerful tools in helping human beings grow and change. When dealing with wounded human beings who have serious issues with trusting others, cinema therapy can be a tool that feels less threatening and therefore can be highly effective. It is my opinion that cinema therapy gives a therapist an effective modality in which clients have the opportunity for healing and growth.

(Tom Pecca, trauma and addictions therapist, The Refuge, A Healing Place, compiled by Ilse Pauw, Health24, July 2011)

Pecca will be in South Africa to co-present a four-day trauma counselling course. Click here for more details. He is also presenting a talk on process addictions in Cape Town on 12 July.


Caron, J. J. (n.d.). DSM at the Movies: Use of Media in Clinical or Educational Settings. Article 38 .

Hesley, J. W. (1997). Rent Two Films and Let's Talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies in Psychotherapy. New York: Wiley.

Hynes, A. & B. (1986). Bibliotherapy: The interactive process. Boulder, Co: Weswtview Press.

Solomon, D. G. (2001). Reel Therapy. How Movies Inspire You to Overcome Life's Problems. New York, NY: Lebhar-Friedman books.

Vogler, C. (1992) The Writer's Journey. Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.


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