Art Therapy: The Movie is a feature documentary about the innovative ways art is being used around the world to overcome emotional challenges and traumatic experiences. What began as a short video for classroom use has now expanded into a feature length documentary. The filmmakers are currently looking to secure funding on Kickstarter to complete this film, which will take place in the U.S., Japan, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and South America. Kelvin Ramirez, a board certified licensed creative arts therapist (LCAT) and PhD Candidate, is the producer and Alfonso Bui, an independent filmmaker and fashion photographer, is the director. Here is a conversation with Ramirez and Bui explaining their vision and project:
Alfonso: Art Therapy: The Movie is the culmination of a lot of different people and talents trying to make a special film happen. The support has been great so far and the art therapy community is really rooting for us to make both an entertaining and educational film. With my background in photography and film and Kelvin’s educational experience as an art therapist, I think we’re in a good position to make that happen.
Kelvin: To understand how this project came about, I have to look back to when I was an undergrad student. College was an interesting time for me, as I always felt both lucky and displaced. On one hand I was from the South Bronx, but on the other hand I was living a privileged college life. I constantly had questions about the human condition and this manifested into me taking social action by traveling to Peru, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Admittedly, I was a bit rebellious and idealistic, but these experiences ultimately planted the seed for my future art therapy experiences abroad years later.
The first of these international art therapy experiences began with the basic exploration into the relative nature poverty and its effect on the human condition. What are the dynamics of institutionally created poverty and how do these subtleties influence human behavior? What are the realities of living in a low-income area on how we perceive ourselves and our responsibilities within the larger community? I took high school students from the South Bronx who believed they were poor and exposed them to another type of poverty in Nicaragua in hopes of opening conversations into commercialism, social justice and personal accountability. This trip also included graduate level art therapists from two universities whose therapeutic work centered in a school serving a wide range of children with special needs. Together, using artistic expression as a vehicle, we explored the dynamics and complexities of poverty and self-expression. Although the connections that were fostered influenced us greatly it took several months for all of us to begin to digest what was exactly experienced. The educational and personal merits of those interactions were amazing and continue to shape my vision for education and art therapy. It became important to me to document the next journey in the Dominican Republic so I could have a tangible example to use in the classroom to illustrate and discuss student growth.
Alfonso: I remember clearly when Kelvin asked me if I wanted to travel with him and a group of art therapy grad students to La Romana, Dominican Republic and be the group photographer. I had just finished covering New York Fashion Week and was planning to sleep for the next month and a half, but when I Googled La Romana and saw photos of beaches and resorts I changed my mind. I figured it was a great opportunity to relax and also test out some new video equipment. Kelvin liked the idea of having a film archive so I came on board as the group videographer instead. It was definitely an adventure and not at all what I was expecting. Like Kelvin, being from the Bronx and attending a private college, I’ve experienced both poverty and privilege, but nothing can quite prepare you for the anomalies in the Dominican Republic.
It took me about two weeks after arriving back in New York to process my experiences. Once Kelvin and I were settled in again, we watched the footage together. We were fascinated and thought we could turn this footage into a short video to be used in classrooms. With each cut and conversation, our ideas kept growing. After a few weeks, I approached Kelvin with an idea and surely enough he was thinking the same thing: The best way to honor these stories and experiences would be to expand, include other stories around the world, and make a feature length documentary.
Kelvin: Everyone had their own insight as to what those interactions in the Dominican Republic meant for them, and I was no different. As an educator, it was about the education of the therapist, beyond the textbook theory. As an art therapist it was about sharing the insight that we can only change ourselves by increasing our awareness and cultivating compassion. Keeping that in mind, Alfonso and I came up with a blueprint for the film. This film will chronicle stories both at home in America and around the world about: the education and fostering of compassion by the therapist; the ability of artistic expression to bridge differences within oneself; and about creating opportunities of growth by providing exposure and access.
Alfonso: The film will be character driven. I think these are the best kinds of documentaries because we get a better understanding of the subject at hand through the journey and ensuing drama. There’s nothing more boring than a documentary featuring a bunch of talking heads with voices over archival footage. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly merit in sit down interviews and we definitely will have the leading voices of art therapy speaking in the film. However, a character driven film is the best and most entertaining way to show how art therapy is being used innovatively all around the world. It satisfies the requirements for the film to be both entertaining and educational and on a macro scale, it satisfies the specific markets we want to reach: the classroom, the family, and the commercial market.
Kelvin: The support for the film since we launched our Kickstarter campaign has been incredible. We expected a big response, but it’s been a humbling experience to receive messages of support alongside contributions of $1 to $1000. Of course we have received some concerns from the art therapy community. The film is still in its infancy so we can understand why there are some misconceptions about the film. In no way is this film an anthology of art therapy or intended to define an entire profession. It is a collection of experiences, stories and collaborations that we hope can aid in bringing a representative picture of Art Therapy into focus to a larger audience.
Alfonso: What we hope people will understand is that this film is far from done – we have stories in Japan, New York and South America that will focus on the subjects and art therapy already occurring there. That being said, the footage that we do have right now chronicles the personal and professional growth of a group of art therapy grad students working in the Dominican Republic. This aspect of the film has massive academic value, but we’ve received a few hostile emails bashing the entire documentary as a “save the world” film. Of course the story in the Dominican Republic has a humanitarian element to it. When you have two different cultures interacting like that, a special human connection occurs. We want to explore the possibilities of human connection. But as we’ve said before, the story in the Dominican Republic is just one part of the film. If it still bothers you, hopefully you’ll come around once you see how it plays out in the film. I can’t say too much more about the story in the Dominican Republic. When the film is released you’ll get to hear directly from the art therapy students who will dispel the myth themselves that this was only a do-gooder Spring Break trip. Their experiences are fascinating to watch and I want to be clear that it’s their stories and interactions that inspired and set the stage for this feature film. None of this is possible without them.
Kelvin: To put all of this into a wider context, the film is about waking up and realizing our life’s work. It is not a feel good film about the magical powers of art therapy because, honestly, there is no magic. It is not a self-indulgent film about how great we are because the people we work with and their remarkable resilience is an everyday reminder that we ourselves have to improve. The film challenges you to see both sides of the story, specifically the art therapist’s and client’s alike, and witnessing their hopes and fears. That is at the heart of this documentary.
For more information on how you can support this project, please see the link below.
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC
If you are interested in supporting Art Therapy: The Movie, please visit the filmmakers Kickstarter campaign here: