Cinema Therapy

Lisa BaharLisa Bahar has always loved the movies. “My journey with film began early on with my family who all adored the cinema,” Bahar said. “Film for us became an important form of communication—when we were happy, we went to a film; and when things were not so good, we went to a film.”

In college, Bahar pursued her passion for film and earned a degree in cinema-television production from the University of Southern California, and spent the next 15 years working in the entertainment industry as a development executive whose job was to develop stories and screenplays into movies.

But after many years in the industry, Bahar became disillusioned with Hollywood. “It’s a tough business,” Bahar admitted. “I was working such long hours and didn’t have any time to create good, healthy relationships. It was having a negative effect on me, and instinctually, I knew it was time for me to move on.”

Bahar moved back to Orange County, where she had grown up, and spent a period of time mourning the loss of a dream. “I was definitely heartbroken, and I was in dark place for a while as I grieved,” she recalled. “I, of course, went to a lot of films to heal my sadness, which is rather ironic, but it certainly worked.”

It was during this time of reflection that Bahar started reading material related to psychology, including books by Carl Jung, Viktor Frankl, and Irvin Yalom. “I became intrigued with the mind and the philosophy of life,” she said.

With newfound determination, Bahar applied for and was accepted into GSEP’s master’s degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy program. “When I was looking into a master’s program, I liked the values that Pepperdine represented,” she said. “They emphasized leadership and living a life of purpose—and that’s what I was really looking for.”

And it wasn’t long before Bahar knew she had made the right decision. “When I started my first semester with Dr. Hedgespeth in Psychology 610: Theories in Personality and started to study the ideas of psychology, I knew that I had found a new home.”

And though she had a newfound passion for psychology, she still had pangs of sadness over her lost career. “I thought film would never be part of my job again,” Bahar recalled.

Not until, that is, she enrolled in a professional practices course and was challenged with the idea of how to use cinema as a form of therapy. “I was intrigued as to how we as humans respond to stories on film,” Bahar explained. “How we become less rigid and more open  as we join in the journey of a character and how stories can resonate with us for years.”

Bahar completed her master’s in 2005 and began working as a therapist, mainly focusing on work with first-time youth offenders and those suffering from chemical dependency and addiction. “I began to talk about films more and more with clients,” she recalled.

“We began discussing movie characters that they identified with, or stories that could be used as a form of communication, often times better than words.”

She developed a unique eight-week “cinema therapy” session as part of her group therapy work in a drug treatment center. Within the eight weeks, participants each select a movie of their choice, and everyone in the group watches the movie. There is a time of reflection and journaling from the group, followed by discussion, including a time when the person who selected the movie shares her experience and why she chose the movie.

“Since they are watching fictional characters, it allows them to externalize their own problems that may be similar,” Bahar explained. “It can create a safe distance and can allow someone to feel validated—like, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one who’s gone through that.’”

During the discussion phase, Bahar may ask some leading questions, such as: “This character is struggling with depression, how did he deal with it?” Or, “Can you appreciate this from your own life experiences?” Or, “What could he have done differently in this movie to have a better outcome?”

Bahar explained that recent research done in relation to Robert Gardner’s multiple intelligences suggests that movies activate several of these at once, allowing one to be more inclined to receive and retain information.

“Watching movies can engage all seven of Gardner’s intelligences,” according to Oakland therapist Birgit Wolz, a leading advocate of cinema therapy. “Movies can access the logical (plot); the linguistic (dialogue); the visual-spatial (pictures, colors, symbols); the musical (sounds and music); the interpersonal (storytelling); the kinesthetic (moving); and the intra-psychic (inner guidance).”

In addition to her group cinema therapy work, Bahar is also in the process of opening a private practice where she utilizes aspects of her cinema therapy within the context of counseling. “If you truly think about it, films have a meaning and purpose just like we all do, and they speak to us in a very creative and non-threatening way,” she said.

Bahar also gives frequent lectures on cinema therapy and is an associate faculty member at Saddleback College in the Human Services Division.

“What I have come to realize is that clients adore films for a reason,” Bahar concluded. “I believe that movies were put in our lives as a way to make us consider other ways of looking at life—and that’s where hope and healing begin.”

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