Using Film To Help The Homeless Overcome Estrangement

Empty cupped male hands pleading and begging

By Frank Marangos. “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”  ~ Edward Said

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere (1989) of one of the most popular movies of all time. Apart from enjoying a variety of events, the trigentennial celebration of Field of Dreams affords a valuable opportunity to organizations serving the nation’s homeless population to focus themselves and the attention of their patrons on the Academy Award winning film’s powerful themes of estrangement and reconciliation.

Field of Dreams centers on an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) who hears a voice in his cornfield promising, “If you build it, he will come!” The film’s story-line chronicles the personal as well as inter-personal conflicts that Kinsella must endure in order to build what he interprets as a baseball field on his prime farmland. In fact, Ray is publicly ridiculed and called a “weirdo” at a town meeting for “plowing under his cornfield.” It is not until the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other Chicago White Sox baseball players mysteriously appear on his manicured diamond that the motifs of estrangement and reconciliation gradually emerge. Permitted to return to the “field” from which the team was initially banned for throwing the 1919 World Series, a player poses the film’s critical question: “Is this heaven?”

Field of Dreams is much more than a fictional baseball story. At its core, it is a theological exposé about home. Understood as the “field” where an individual’s identity is most authentically disclosed, home is defined by the film as a partial expression of heaven – a secure hamlet where relational estrangements can heal.  Having left his family as a teen after an argument with his father who died before they could reconcile, Ray, like the enigmatic baseball players, is wounded, inflicted, in exile, and homeless. In the words of Edward Said quoted above, Ray is suffering from the “crippling sorrow of estrangement.” Fortunately, after overcoming a myriad of challenges, the baseball diamond that he sacrificially built, provides the reconciliation of his dreams.  In the film’s emotional finale, the corn field becomes both heaven and home. It becomes the sanctuary where Ray is given the opportunity to “have a catch” with his father who is unexpectedly revealed as one of the team’s players.

Field of Dreams has much to say to the nation as it debates how to address the societal problem of homelessness. However, while reasonable to believe that consensus could easily by realized by residents in whose communities shelters and services for the homeless are proposed, this is not the case. Unfortunately, while the vast majority may agree in principle, the construction of homeless centers are routinely rejected by city councils who, like Kinsella’s fellow Iowans, are victims of a syndrome commonly referred to as NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard).

The National Association of Hunger and Homelessness reports that there are currently 3.5 million people in the US experiencing homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (2018), there are 552,830 people experiencing homelessness on any given night.  Thirty-three percent (33%) are families with children. Even with these startling statistics, attitudes toward homelessness have become increasingly negative.

In his article, An Optimisation Model to Consider the NIMBY Syndrome (2019), Mariano Gallo describes the NIMBY phenomenon as primarily related to the strong opposition of 1970-80s communities to landfills, incinerators, and thermoelectric power plants. However, while such public works facilities remain controversial, unlike Gallo, Adam Driscoll insists that NIMBY has also been applied to movements organized to resist a range of other socially undesirable entities, such as AIDS treatment centers, prisons, and substance abuse centers. In his article, NIMBY Movements (2013) Driscoll suggests that “one area that has received a good deal of attention has been NIMBY movements directed against the building of homeless shelters.” Consequently, in order to justify community opposition, residents, like Kinsella’s fellow Iowans, callously brand the patrons of these facilities as “weirdos,” dangerous, a risk to home values, and to the safety of their neighborhoods.

According to the 2014 National Health Care for the Homeless Conference, many problems lead to homelessness. Apart from financial problems, job loss, debilitating physical and mental health issues, and addiction, the Homeless Conference concluded that estrangement from family connections and/or social networks is a major pathway leading to homelessness.

Long before the National Health Care Conference reached its conclusions, James D. Wright and Beth A. Rubin contended that apart from exhibiting personal disability, mental illness, substance abuse, and deep poverty, “homeless people have been found to suffer from high levels of family and social estrangement.” In their article, Is Homelessness a Housing Problem? (1991), the authors describe two different types of estrangement among the homeless: (1) those who would like to return but knew they would not be welcome, or (2) family leavers who have fled a domestic situation so troubling or so abusive that life on the streets is the preferred alternative.

More recently, like Wright and Rubin, Laura Davis asserts that society must help individuals deal with relationships that have been damaged by betrayal, anger, and misunderstanding. In her book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation (2003), Davis maps out a reconciliation process that can help the homeless and other individuals suffering from estrangement.  According to Davis, reconciliation is a “continuum” where one end is “deep and transformative” while, at the other end, “no viable relationship is possible.” In between, there are degrees of reconciliation. These degrees represent a relationship in which “one person changes his or her frame of reference or expectations” and then one in which “much about the relationship remains unresolved and ambivalent … yet both people agree to disagree.” Consequently, while individual stories differ, she suggests that reconciliation primarily occurs in one of four ways: (1) deep, mutual healing, (2) shifting expectations, (3) agreeing to disagree, and (4) inner resolution.

Nancy Richards agrees with Davis’ alarming assessment of the current level of estrangement among the homeless population. In Heal and Forgive II: The Journey from Abuse and Estrangement to Reconciliation (2017), Richards, an adult survivor of childhood abuse, presents a first-hand description of the long journey towards healing and offers a blueprint for coming to terms with the past.  Whether re-establishing a relationship with a family member or remaining apart, the author argues that “healing is vital for the individual’s happiness and well-being.”

In their article, Psychological Interventions for People Who are Homeless (2013), Mili A. Thomas, MA, Debbie Browen, Polina Kitsis, Claire Lisco, and Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD outline six challenges that organizations providing interventions to the homeless must address: (1) poverty, (2) transportation issues, (3) limited social support, (4) limited education (low literacy), and (5) emotional factors. In order to maximize the positive outcomes when treating the sixth and final challenge, namely, fragmented relational systems, the authors suggest two therapeutic approaches: (1) story-telling, and (2) interventions that help the homeless review past relationships within the context of their current situation.

Faith-based and nonprofit organizations providing services to people experiencing homelessness have tremendous potential to directly help their patrons both identify and reconcile their underlying relational estrangements. Film therapy, during which participants are invited to view movies like Field of Dreams whose stories provide remedial frameworks, is an intervention that should be considered for addressing the issue. Apart from increasing knowledge and awareness of underlying societal problems, and, thereby, reducing the tendency of NIMBYism among local communities, media-based interventions can empower participants to examine their individual stories and engage in cathartic dialogue around issues of relational estrangement.

Film Therapy is a creative outreach intervention for effectively serving many of the primary psychological drivers contributing to homelessness. Film Therapy, also referred to as Cinema, Reel, or Movie Therapy, is a therapist-directed viewing of movies for curative purposes. At the conclusion of a presentation, the metaphors, symbolism, and imagery embedded in a given film can be leveraged by therapists as springboards to help the homeless explore thoughts, feelings and address areas of concern.

The term “Cinema Therapy” was first used in 1990 by L. Berg-Cross, P. Jennings, and R. Baruch. In their article, Cinematherapy: Theory and Application, the authors define the technique “as a treatment in which a therapist selects films relevant to a person in the treatment’s areas of concern, which the individual might view alone or with specified others.” According to the researchers, Film and Cinema Therapy have a cathartic function that uses scenes or entire movies to help viewers focus on their problems through identification and empathy. While sad and distressing stories can help emotional traumas surface, the authors contend that movies that celebrate virtue and integrity can also elevate and inspire viewers to recast unhealthy mental schemas.

“Cinema therapy is the process of using movies made for the big screen or television for therapeutic purposes,” says Gary Solomon, author of The Motion Picture Prescription (1995) and Reel Therapy: How Movies Inspire You to Overcome Life’s Problems (2001). One of the nation’s foremost authorities on the subject of Film Therapy, Solomon provides suggestions as to how various movies can be used to help viewers identify and deal with psychological issues pertaining to strained relationships. In fact, Solomon often lectures at prisons to help inmates learn to use movies as therapy to see what they have done to get them into their current predicament and, hopefully, to learn from it. “Movies are a terrific tool,” he insists. “Movies help people see themselves, their family or their friends through the movies they’re watching.”

In Movie Therapy: How It Changes Lives (2011), psychotherapist Bernie Wooder underscores the value of Solomon’s thesis. “Movie therapy is powerful,” he contends, “because it accesses feelings and emotions quickly, bringing them to the surface like a magnet.” Wooder explains that “films provide role models, clarify relationship issues, identify problems and solutions, inspire and motivate. Because you watch from a third person perspective,” he argues, “defenses are down, so the film can act as a springboard for self-discovery.”

According to Birgit Wolz, author of Cinema Therapy (2013), movies serve as allegories in much the same way as do stories, myths, jokes, fables, or dreams which can all be utilized in therapy. “The cognitive effect of cinema therapy can be explained through recent theories of learning and creativity, that suggest that we have seven intelligences.” Like Wooder, Wolz contends that watching movies can be used to engage all seven intelligences: (1) the logical (plot), (2) the linguistic (dialogs), (3) the visual-spatial (pictures, colors, symbols), (4) the musical (sounds and music), (5) the intra-psychic (inner guidance), (6) the kinesthetic (moving), and (7) the interpersonal (storytelling).

Storytelling is the most frequently used of the seven cognitive domains described by Wolz. Exercised in collaboration with film/video-based therapy, interpersonal storytelling helps the homeless identify and reflect on personal relationships and, thereby, develop new perspectives on external events that may have precipitated their current situation. Five visual storytelling trends have exhibited surprising therapeutic results: (1) rebroadcasts of classic movies and TV shows, (2) interactive storytelling that allow audiences to interact with personalities in real-time, (3) Internet and computer-based storytelling systems, (4) hyper-real virtual reality (VR) and immersive storytelling, (5) wearable technologies that allow users the ability to gather stories from mobile phones and to create first-person narratives to share with the world, and (6) social impact storytelling used to increase empathy for others and raise funds for social causes.

Like Solomon, Wooder, and Wolz, Joshua Cohen, co-editor of Video and Filmmaking as Psychotherapy: Research and Practice (2015), claims that cinema is an indispensable healing tool because “watching a film often can speak directly to the human soul.” What makes this medium therapeutic, he writes, is its use “with therapeutic intent within the safe environment of therapy with credentialed and trained therapists.” Cinematherapy, argues Cohen, “moves beyond talk therapy by appealing to clients’ visual, auditory and other senses and offers opportunities for self-discovery that are not found through words alone.” Cohen and his co-authors reference numerous studies in their book that provide ample evidence that supports the claim.

As we have observed in this and previous Frankly Speaking commentaries, homelessness is a complex issue that is the result of a number of spiritual, economic, political, physiological, and psychological factors. Relational breakdowns, however, particularly in terms of estrangement, is of special concern.   Relational estrangement may be classified in a number of ways: (1) self, (2) parental, (3) familial, (4) social, (5) political (6) societal, and (7) spiritual. Ministering to individuals going through the crises of such manifestations of estrangement, particularly among the homeless, is of vital importance. While Belcher and DeForge advocate that one of the keys to helping people who are homeless “is to develop programs that reduce the social stigma attached to being homeless,” it was not the intent of this commentary to plot a roadmap for diminishing such NIMBY tendencies. It was, however, focused on suggesting the use of Film Therapy as an intervention that may help the homeless move forward along the continuum of estrangements towards reconciliational healing.In his essay, Reflections on the Seventh Art (1923), Italian film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo argued that cinema was the “New Seventh Art,” a superb conciliation of the six ancient arts: (1) architecture, (2) sculpture, (3) painting, (4) music, (5) poetry, and (6) dance.” The anniversary of the 30-year premiere of Field of Dreams is a wonderful opportunity for Faith-based and non-profit organizations to provide visual storytelling interventions to their homeless patrons. Scheduled viewings of the popular baseball film could be followed by therapist-led sessions during which participants would be invited to select a personality(s) in the movie that best resonates with their life experience. Options could include the character of Ray, his wife or daughter, his in-laws, parents, local community, penalized baseball players, beloved doctor, famous author or father. Whatever persona is selected, the mediation has the potential to help viewers move forward along the therapeutic continuum of estrangement to reconciliation.

When properly integrated within a thoughtful therapeutic process, the transformative themes of estrangement and reconciliation in Field of Dreams may serve as powerful catalysts for personal healing. Combined with mindful storytelling exercises, followed by in-depth journaling, role-play, and group discussion, viewers can thereby be given opportunities to make life-changing decisions concerning their respective disaffections.

Apart from the physically homeless, millions of individuals are seeking and searching for answers to quiet the pain of estrangement. The theological themes, cinematically expressed in Field of Dreams, provide indispensable lenses through which the homeless can identify and begin to heal the estrangements in their respective life-stories.  “Reconciliations,” writes Richards, “can bring joy, excitement and a sense of awe like that of a miracle.” One cannot help but think of the character of Ray Kinsella when reflecting on Richard’s statement. And yet, it is only by listening and giving life to our inner voice that “we can affect a change within ourselves.”

Field of Dreams is not about baseball. It is about healing. It is about “going the distance” and “building” a home for the homeless. Perhaps in so doing, like Ray Kinsella, we too may be reunited with our Heavenly Father’s Will to serve the underprivileged, and thereby, actually “have a catch” with Him! Yes, “If WE build it, THEY will come.” Filed of Dreams concludes with miles of cars approaching a night-lit baseball diamond. The message is clear. We all dream of finding our true home. If society can learn to overcome the stigmas of NIMBYism and build such “fields of reconciliation,” WE will indeed ALL come!

Home - From Homeless to Wholeness' Film

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