Cinema Therapy: Exploring Psychology and Film with Dr. Gupta and Dr. Umminger

The Other Night School wrapped up the semester with an interdisciplinary presentation on April 11.

Jannette Emmerick

The Other Night School wrapped up the semester with an interdisciplinary presentation on April 11. English Professor Dr. Allison Umminger and Psychology Professor Dr. Nisha Gupta utilized their love of filmmaking to deliver “The Psychology of Filmmaking.”

“So we agreed that the Psychology of Filmmaking would be the perfect topic,” said Gupta. “And coming at it as if a Screenwriter and a psychotherapist go to the movies. What do they both see?”

Umminger and Gupta centered their presentation around two films, “Lion” (2016), an Australian biographical drama based on Saroo Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home,” and “Drive My Car” (2021), a Japanese film based on Haruki Murakami’s short story under the same name.

“I would talk about the screenwriting angle,” saidUmminger. “Like how do we get into making characters grow and change as writers, or how do we create situations or deep character wants? Or how do you make a resistant character move or how do you represent a complex psychological state visually?”

With their respective expertise, Gupta and Umminger established six principles of why filmmaking is psychologically powerful by:

  1. Crafting dynamic situations

2. Making characters move from stasis to growth

3. Emotionally powerful visual imagery and metaphor

4. Empathic mirror for self reflection

5. Moments of emotional catharsis and containment

6. Offering a story of hope

“You know that moment in a movie where you just start crying?” Said Gupta. “Like if you see the character and something happens to them on screen and you burst out into tears on their behalf? That’s also actually a therapeutic moment for the audience, because it’s like the purging of emotions that might be building up inside about their own stuff that needs release. And movies are like a safe container to access our own healing.”

The emotional impact of film is so cathartic that films can now be prescribed by therapists as a way to overcome psychological trauma or instigate introspection.

“There’s actually a field, or an approach to therapy, called ‘cinema therapy,’” said Gupta. “Which is kind of like an art therapy approach, that’s about the intentional use of movie viewing to have emotional transformations and discover insight in yourself and kind of move forward about your own hardships in life. We watch movies in order to have these reflections that we ourselves are going through.”

Cinema therapy is not exclusive to dramas or psychological genres either, “Groundhog’s Day” (1993) in particular is often prescribed for several reasons. The story follows a cynical weatherman repeating the same day for a long period of time, which as therapy shows the need to break patterns and other themes that might trigger self reflection in the audience.

“From the cinema therapy perspective on why movies [are so effective], is because they’re a multi-sensory experience,” said Gupta. “You’re hearing visuals, you’re seeing things, it touches on all of your senses and that’s where emotions are in the body so you can be having a bodily emergence.”

Humans have always valued stories and storytelling whether through theatrical productions or reading novels. In the past, movies could only be enjoyed in public theaters, but in the modern age, movies are available at the press of a button.

“I think there’s something so uniquely accessible about film,” said Umminger. “Like you don’t have to be super educated, you don’t have to love reading, the story is just there and it’s inviting you in. I think there’s also the social aspect of movie viewing that maybe reading a book doesn’t always have.”

“People also just want to laugh and forget themselves, which I think is another way movies allow for change and release,” Umminger continued. “Which is a different kind of therapy perhaps than the cathartic, dealing with my emotions, there’s also that ‘I get to forget myself for a while.’”

Still, escapism is not the objective of therapy.

“I think that those can be like medication almost because they are soothing in ways,” said Gupta. “But I don’t think I would consider them therapeutic in the sense of the profession of therapy because what therapists try to help people do is face their issues and move through them directly instead of forgetting about them.”

Perhaps cinema therapy can also resonate with the trauma of acommunity or a traumatic event, for instance, atomic cinema that reflects on the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings.

“My colleague and I have looked at film as a cultural therapeutic,” said Gupta. “We did a special section on a journal where we interviewed filmmakers on how their film can serve as collective therapy for the culture, around particularly topics of oppression that are typically suppressed or forced into silence.”

Moreover, cinema therapy can also reflect feelings felt by many, such as ones depicting mental illness or anxiety, like “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.” In the end, most anyone has one motion picture that they hold close to their heart or gives some kind of comfort to their growth as a person.

“Film breaks silences and keeps things inour memory. Our cultural memory,” said Gupta. “There’s so much about the cultural therapeutics of film as one of the most important tools of liberation.”



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