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Watching Films Is Like a Therapy Session

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You’ve seen the commercials and the trailers. The lights go down again. You settle down expectantly in your comfortable seat. All is quiet now. You are about to share an emotional and intimate experience in the dark with a roomful of strangers. You are at the cinema and it’s powerful.

A film is a hotline to emotions. Through the camera’s eye, you can share the broadest range of actions and feelings. Films will thrill you, scare you and move you. The hardest of tough men who never cry will cry at a sad film. A film touches us in a wondrous way and it’s instant: we cry, we laugh, we sigh, we gasp.

A film can release our hidden emotions, bringing to the surface feelings of hope and joy, desire and longing, suspense and tension, concern and awareness, anxiety and fear, release and relief – in a word: catharsis.

The filmmaker’s task is to tell a story. But more than that, a good film can bring not just the catharsis of tears and laughter, but a sense of meaning and magic, of transformation and renewal.

The power of film is that it can touch the depth of human experience. It can connect us to universally shared yet deeply personal emotions. It can tap into our unconscious feelings and fantasies.

It is said that there are only 7 basic narratives in a film:

  • Boy gets girl
  • The goodies overcome the baddies
  • David and Goliath
  • The Cinderella story
  • The quest
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy

Films express these archetypical stories in so many unique and different ways, delving into our memories and dreams. These stories are part of our universally shared history as humans. They may remind us of past experiences but they also show us what we can expect in life if we act and behave in a certain way. Films don’t just depict characters and events, they may ask us to think about our moral values, how we make choices and decisions, and how we live our lives.

Films tap into the conscious and the unconscious. They can help us make connections between the two, gaining understanding and meaning. We may start to think about how our actions and those of others around us affect our lives. All this in just a couple of hours.

When we identify with the stories and characters, their feelings and experiences. films can help us to feel less isolated.  We can find consolation when we share our emotions in a fictional medium that is so powerful it can often feel as though we are living it for real.

The power of film is such that we are drawn irresistibly into another world through images, words, and music; a world that may be instantly familiar psychologically and emotionally, however unfamiliar the setting.

We may not know the rocky red landscape of Arizona but our hearts sing as Thelma and Louise set off on their quest for freedom. We have not been imprisoned for a crime we haven’t committed but we relate strongly to the injustice of it. We have not experienced the adventures of musicians in drag fleeing to Florida during Prohibition but we laugh with them.

There are positive and negative role models, goodies and baddies, heroes and villains, winners and losers, survivors and victims.

It’s not about the context; it’s about the shared emotions. Films can give us insight and awareness, a different way of looking at our problems and difficulties. They ask us to use our imagination as they access our unconscious wishes and dreams, our unspoken fantasies. Although we share the experience of watching a film with the audience in the cinema, it is also a deeply private and personal experience. Paradoxically – in the film world of illusion and reality, fiction and truth – we can escape but we are engaged, we are detached but we are absorbed, we are alone but not alone, and we experience private thoughts and feelings in a public place.

As an art form, the experience of the film is both inclusive and exclusive, shared and private, popular and elitist. A film is nothing without the viewer. It only asks that you watch it, yet it is uniquely interactive. Like a therapy session, it provides a timed space with defined boundaries and a safe space for exploring psychological processes.

The power of film, like most artworks, takes place in the space between the artist’s created object and the individual’s experience of it. In therapy, this is the space between the client and the therapist, our inner and outer worlds.

The unique combination of image and sound engages us like no other art form.

Films give us permission to taste the forbidden, the chance to be what we are not. Our secret fantasies and desires, our worst fears and nightmares are identified and contained in a safe space. There is the shock of recognition. Psychic truths that we cannot enact in real life are projected from our inner world into the cinematic space.

Films like real life, are full of unplanned events, unanticipated actions, happy accidents and coincidences, unintended outcomes, and chaotic behaviours. But a film, unlike real life, ties it all up and brings it all to a conclusion, an ending.

Films place our personal issues in a wider context. We are cleansed by catharsis, there is a moment’s relief from pain and sadness, fear and despair. There is hope, our personal problems are put in perspective. We can take a short break from our own reality into the illusional reality of the film we are watching.

When the story resonates with the narratives of our own life, we may be able to make a change, however small. We are reminded that we have choices and that we can be the masters of our own destinies. Through the fiction of film, we can see things as they really are for us and there can be a shift in how we think and feel about the challenges and difficulties we are facing. At the very least we can escape into the world of the movie and find some respite.

We are drawn into the gripping narrative of a film, yet it’s over in a couple of hours. Even when we know what will happen we are still surprised when it does. We see the characters in a film transformed by their experiences and we can find comfort in the hope that we too can be transformed by what we ourselves are going through. We come back to our own reality somehow enriched and maybe even changed by the experience of a similar yet fictional reality.

Films are accessible to everyone. You don’t have to be literate, well-educated or intellectual. You just have to show up. Films are magic. Go to the movies, be a hero for a while, and live it for a moment.

Carol Martin-Sperry is a sex therapist and the author of three books about couples and sex. Carol is a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. 


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