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The Powerful Tool of Stories

by Reji Mathew, Ph.D., LCSW, REAT

August 23rd, 2022

As an expressive arts educator and advocate, a central ethos of my teaching approach is to bring ideas to life through multi-media arts expression, referred to as intermodal processing, using the arts as a tool to process themes. This method invites students to connect to ideas intellectually and kinesthetically, to let the ideas begin to live inside themselves, which can stimulate new interpretations of the material.

When I stumbled upon the Project UnLonely Film Festival, I discovered a cross- cultural, intergenerational, intersectional collection of short films exploring themes of loneliness across the lifespan; I laughed, I cried, I reflected; each film offered an impactful lens into human struggles and triumphs.

In my graduate-level teaching at NYU, I have integrated Project UnLonely films into my lessons. To explore themes of aging, Burning Van, the story of nomadic seniors, and Dial a Ride were compelling films on the struggles of aging persons finding safety, shelter, and community. I also showed The Paint Wizzard, a poignant, intimate story of an aging trans female painter finding meaningful work and place in the world.

In my classes on Trauma & Recovery, Sticks and Stones, a film about toxic masculinity, left a powerful impression on students, especially seeing visually through art images how hurtful images get internalized.

The harms and benefits of the digital world is an ongoing mental health theme in my classes; I loved contrasting I Forgot my Phone, a funny, compelling look at our obsessions with phones and what we miss out on in the present moment, with Ms. Diva Trucker, is a beautiful film on how social media builds community for so many isolated people.

Cinema Therapy, a branch of the expressive arts, posits that stories allow us to feel, reflect, and draw inferences about our lives with safety & aesthetic distance. For therapeutic aims, I have also recommended Project UnLonely films to psychotherapists to use as a tool for processing in counseling in my community public health lectures.

Project UnLonely is not only a case study on loneliness across the lifespan but also a model of the future of inclusive storytelling. Screenplay Writer Robert Rippberger says that if you have seen 1000 movies, you have lived 1000 lives. The films of Project UnLonely tell stories about aging, gender identity, immigration, race, sexual health rights, emerging adulthood, and more; they are stories told with bravery, transparency, and life affirmation.

The mission of Project UnLonely is a gift; they understand deeply that the true path to easing our loneliness is through social empathy when we find our shared humanity in the stories of each other.

Reji Mathew, Ph.D., LCSW, REAT is an Expressive Arts Educator & Advocate, Integrative CBT/DBT Psychotherapist, and Intermodal Artist living in New York, N.Y.

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