Cinema Therapy at Oscar Time

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

The motion picture industry is often at the very cusp of a revolutionary mode of entertaining that challenges, teaches, and changes the world that received it. The Oscars, to be presented this year on Feb. 22nd, provide a catalyst for conscious expansiveness. We will explore interpsychic, interpersonal, and social justice issues. As our Online CE Courses on Cinema Therapy show, movies can be a valuable adjunct tool for the therapeutic process.

2015 Oscar Nominations that guide the viewer through a Hero’s Journey of facing and overcoming adversities:Cinema Therapy

    • Wild: By undertaking a challenging thousand-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed reclaims control of her life after struggling with addiction, the loss of her mother and a divorce.
    • The Theory of Everything: The film tells us about Stephen Hawkins’s amazing scientific accomplishments despite his struggle with a slow-progressing form of motor neuron disease that has gradually paralyzed him over the decades.
    • Selma: M. L. King fights against discrimination and injustice through the 1965 freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery.
    • American Sniper: Chris Kyle, a skilled sniper who fought in Iraq, copes with PTSD and the resulting problems in his marriage after he returns home.
    • The Imitation Game: The journey of an autistic gay man operating in a deeply homophobic culture, who cracks the code of the German Enigma machine during World War II.



During the clinical hour, Cinema Therapy can be applied as an adjunct to numerous therapeutic modalities in the following ways:

Evocative Way: This way utilizes movies by borrowing from dream work. When films resonate with clients, they touch an unconscious or preconscious part of their psyche. A film may move them deeply and a character scene might also upset clients intensely. Understanding their emotional responses to these movies, just as in understanding their dreams, can serve as a window to their unconscious.

The Prescriptive Way: Specific films are prescribed to model specific problem-solving behavior. Movies can also help clients learn “by proxy” how not to do something because they see the negative consequences of a character’s action. For example, when characters struggle with addictions (28 Days) or when a couple works on their communication (50/50).

The Cathartic Way: By identifying with certain characters and their predicaments, clients can experience emotions that lie hidden from their awareness (Lorenzo’s Oil). Because many films transmit ideas through emotion rather than intellect, they can neutralize the instinct to suppress feelings and trigger emotional release (In America).

Groups: The impact of films as catalysts for psychological processes dovetails well with the therapeutic effects of group dynamics. Group members’ reflections about their emotional responses to a movie are an added component that enriches group therapy (Grand Canyon).

Articles by Birgit Wolz

Cinema Therapy: Oscar-nominated movies that can help clients learn from the portrayal of family and couple dynamics:

  • Boyhood: Divorce, stepfamily issues, problems during childhood and adolescence
  • The Judge: Father-Son issues
  • Wild: Mother-Daughter issues
  • The Imitation Game: A journey of an autistic man
  • Birdman: Father-Daughter issues
  • Foxcatcher: Relationship between brothers
  • Still Alice: Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • American Sniper: Coping with PTSD in a marriage
  • The Theory of Everything: Coping with illness and disability


A more complete list of movies and themes can be found at Therapeutic Themes and Movies.

Online CE Courses on Movie-Based & Cinema Therapy

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