Guide to Conscious Film Watching

“Clues [to our inner workings] come to us in our reactions to films. We cry, laugh, or feel fear at certain moments and don’t know why. We become engaged in a scene or character and can tell we are reacting more strongly than is accounted for by what is happening on the screen. We are relating to the characters and events as projections of our own story. We are finding out what we really felt in similar moments in our own lives and how we still feel even now. We are moved by the plight of the hero and we guess it is or was our own. We hear the heroine say just what we would have said if we had been free to do so. We see tears that we were meant to shed. We shed tears that were waiting their turn.” ~ David Richo


Watching films can be more than just entertainment. Film watching can be used as a portal to our inner world. Sometimes with a little distance (through the film and not in a therapist’s office), there’s a little more ease in seeing ourselves. Characters allow themselves to feel what we couldn’t allow ourselves, so that we can get in touch with what we felt or feel still.

What we say about a film says more about us than about the film. It’s like a Rorschach test, or interpreting our own dreams. And, just like in a dream, each character in the film can represent a part of our own psyches.

Movies can:

  1. Show us ways to transform; give pointers to what is needed.
    • If there is a character we relate to, we can see the choices she makes in the film and she can act as a role model, showing us ways to transform.
  1. Be cautionary tales (where we’ll end up if we don’t change).
    • We witness the choice-points that our hero has encountered and the unhealthy decisions he makes: a warning to what NOT to do if we don’t want to end up on his same trajectory.
  1. Supply missing pieces.
    • For example, in Pleasantville, there is a scene where the mother hugs the son and says with tears in her eyes, “I’m so proud of you.” Many viewers tell me they always wished that their parent had expressed those sentiments. I say: “let that scene really enter into your psyche. “Recent research has revealed that immersive and virtual moving image experiences can actually produce the same neurological and biological responses in our brains and bodies as actual lived experiences” (Mark Allan Kaplan). Film viewing in this way can go a long way in making “the wrong thing right.”
  1. Highlight our own blind spots by hearing others’ points of view  
    • In group discussion about the movie, our own blind spots can be highlighted. By hearing others’ points of view, we realize that our way of seeing things is not the only one. One person might say, “the mother was sad,” and another that she was mad. It helps loosen up our certainty that our personal interpretation reflects the truth of the matter, in films or in life!
  1. Show us what we are projecting onto the characters; what we say about the film says more about us than about the film.
    • I once saw a film with my friend, Susan, in which I hated the main female character, although Susan found her likable. What became apparent in our conversation was the qualities I hated in the character I hated in myself.
  1. Build compassion for ourselves and others
    • Not only could I see my projection, but I could also consciously take in Susan’s compassion for the rejected parts of myself. In this way, conscious film watching can elicit compassion both for ourselves and others.
  1. To consciously watch a film, ask yourself these questions:
    • Where do I find myself in the film?
    • Which feelings, sensations, thoughts, memories and associations arise?
    • Which scenes moved, upset, angered, saddened me?
    • Which ones made me numb out, withdraw, dissociate, distance myself?
    • What do my reactions to the film tell me about myself?


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