Jerusalem program pioneers video as therapy

Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh film school has developed a unique course that trains therapists how to use video to rebuild lives.

Five Israeli teens each coping with the death of a parent made a film describing what they are going through — not to win an Oscar, but to explore and understand their feelings through an unusual lens.

They wrote and produced the film under the guidance of the Video Therapy Center at Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts.

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Yarden Kerem, who has headed, developed and expanded the eight-year-old Video Therapy Center over the past two years, tells ISRAEL21c that Ma’aleh’s program is a world-first that is attracting interest from people in other countries.

“Do a Google search on ‘video therapy,’ and you’ll come up with sites about documenting a therapeutic process on video,” she says. “We use this instrument in a different manner – as a creative art instrument.”

Ma’aleh grants video therapy certification to students completing a one-year course. Some come in as experienced filmmakers, others as psychological counselors. The two-track program teaches them a unique therapeutic approach that so far has been used with the orphaned teens as well as at-risk youth, minorities, new immigrants and trauma victims.

“Through the work of art in itself there is relief,” Kerem says. “Film allows a sense of control over one’s life and the power to rebuild it.”

Sharing a private burden

Groups that have made therapeutic films through Ma’aleh include Arab youths dealing with the forced marriage of a 17-year-old friend; a gang of troubled teens that came to the aid of an injured person and got accused of initiating the attack; and residents of a group home from which a girl ran away and was persuaded to return by a Holocaust survivor she met after being assaulted in the streets.

Cinema enhances the therapeutic process, Kerem says, by allowing the subject to give expression to an emotional state and literally see how it looks, and also by providing a way to share a private burden.

“The film is a mirror of the soul that enables looking directly at difficulties and inviting other people to relate to me as a person,” she says.

“Cinema is a long process that allows time to treat the personal story and time to deal with the process that occurred after producing the film,” she explains.

Pursued

In May, Ma’aleh hosted its third annual conference on video therapy. One highlight was the screening of Pursued, co-produced by documentary filmmaker Ron Ofer, who now teaches in the Video Therapy Center.

Ofer was approached more than four years ago by Menachem Roth, an art teacher and budding filmmaker looking to document his efforts to confront a man who had abused him in a Hasidic yeshiva dorm room 20 years previously, at age 14.

“For me, there is no boundary between art and therapy because both deal with the soul,” Roth tells ISRAEL21c.

“I thought [the film] would be helpful for various reasons, mainly to put an end to my own silence. … It was therapeutic throughout the process, although the risk was greater than in a normal therapeutic procedure,” he says.

Pursued was financed by Israel’s Channel 2, the Gesher Foundation, the Makor Foundation and the DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv, where it debuted a year ago. It was also shown at the Jerusalem Cinemateque and on Israeli television.

Though Roth didn’t succeed in wresting a sincere apology from his attacker, he did succeed in asserting himself with the man who, he felt, ruined his life.

“I disabled him with the apparatus of cinema,” says Roth. “I kept our contact to a minimum to make sure I didn’t cause serious mental damage, because he was quite shocked by our interactions and the fact that there was going to be a film.”

Regardless of the project’s effect on the former rapist, Roth found it empowered him to get past the trauma and see himself in a new light, he told viewers at the conference.

Calm and serenity

“We find that this instrument is highly amazing,” says Kerem. “From each filmed piece, one can move on to working on emotions.”

Exactly what happens from a therapeutic point of view remains to be studied.

“There are no written theories about this because therapy through films has not been researched,” says Kerem. “There are virtually no academic sources. We hope that our work will provide the theoretic foundation of what about this process is also very powerful from a therapeutic aspect.”

She does know that participants in video therapy report feeling greater self-confidence and a newfound sense of calm and serenity at the conclusion of the 24-week filmmaking project.

“We do not hand out questionnaires at the beginning, middle and end of the year in order to note the change. But to those involved in this work, it is evident that something good is happening. We work from within our guts; the theory will come later,” Kerem says.

“What existed only in my own private brain, or was my own personal experience, dimly, with no words, unorganized, untreated, assumes a totally different attitude when it is seen on a big screen. It is no longer blurred, but something full of life that I can relate to.”

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.