Film review of ‘The Wisdom of Trauma’

One month has passed approximately after we, at ACE Aware NL, watched ‘The Wisdom of Trauma’ and, after letting it sink in for a while and after discussing the film’s best moments and its strengths, it feels like a good time to write a review about it.

The 1.5 hour film is made by Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo from Science and Nonduality. It was provided on a donation-basis screening that gave you the opportunity to access the film for 7 days, and (with an upgrade) watch discussions by professionals such as Stephen Porges, Fritzi Horstman, Esther Perel, Peter Levine and many more. There is also a very active Facebook group with many interesting discussions and a lot of networking.

Dr. Gabor Maté is probably one of the most outspoken and quoted trauma writers. He has been invited to many events, conferences and festivals around the world. If you perform a Google search, you can find an incredible number of his appearances on screen. In this film, you will encounter most of the themes he addresses in his lectures and that he is well-known for. On top of those, he goes into deeper depths by sharing his ideas from decades of working in the trauma studies field.The way the film is shot and made, draws the viewer into the stories that are being told; with Dr. Maté in the lead and in the voice-over, we are provided with the insights of people from all walks of life who work and live using the principles of his books and lessons.

The title refers to two forms of wisdom:

  • the mindbody has a lot of wisdom in dealing with adversity; coping strategies and behaviours caused and triggered by trauma usually show the person’s wisest way of surviving under difficult circumstances and are not a sign of them being ‘faulty by design’;
  • the wisdom we gain from going through trauma, gaining insight and healing from it can be used to support other people in their healing journey.

In the film, we get to know more about the way he works with his clients, about his approach of respectfully asking for their history (a method called ‘compassionate inquiry’), and his relationship with his wife Rae Maté. They both speak with sincere openness about the turbulence but also about the love and connection they have shared ever since they met in 1967.

The part where we get to know the couple better is quite moving in its candour. We see a man very much oriented towards knowledge who tries to learn to integrate his vulnerability as a strength, and we see a woman who, as an artist, is very much in touch with her intuition and who tries to learn to respond in a balanced way to her partner, integrating her own pain with that of a man affected by intergenerational and personal trauma resulting from the holocaust. They admit having had rough times, but have found ways to, instead of acting out their traumas by arguing or withdrawing from each other, coregulate and heal reciprocally. In a later shot, we see them walking side by side in the park – an elderly, wise, and deeply connected couple.

Outstanding, impressive moments

We like to share with you what, for us, were really impressive moments in the film.

  • Early on, we see Fritzi Horstman, founder of the Compassion Prison Project. Prisoners in the jail yard are in a huge circle and are asked to ‘step inside the circle’, everytime they have to answer with a ‘yes’ to the questions Fritzi asks about humiliation, punishment and trauma they experienced as a child. Watching them realize how much they share in terms of early life adversity and childhood trauma and how they need the support of the community around them (represented by the circle) in order to heal, is both chilling and heartwarming.
  • Somewhere in the last third of the film there is a really funny scene, where Maté responds to a question with a hilarious answer filled with self-mockery. We’re not going to spoil it; you will notice, for sure!
  • Several people tell about their own lived experience; these moments piercingly illustrate the impact of early adversity or neglect. Addressing the issue of losing connection to the self and the ‘meaningfulness’ of the pain it causes, one of them replies to Dr. Maté: “You’re telling me that having that pain showed me deeper inside of myself how I was abandoning myself.”

The film’s strengths

  • The lack of commentary lets you hear the people talk about their trauma, while the camera focuses on their hands, their eyes, their personal space and their artsy, symbolic, or day-to-day belongings.
  • Seeing compassionate inquiry in action is very revealing. Maté has developed this way of gaining understanding about a person’s life experience of trauma and of their childhood, while leaving them in charge of what and when they want to share and inviting them to look at these elements with compassion and understanding of how it helped them survive. Most addiction behaviours are a solution to a much deeper, underlying problem. Compassionate inquiry shares some similarities with motivational interviewing and non-violent communication. However, it is focused on uncovering trauma and helping the person find the root cause of their struggles, usually in a past, traumatic experience or the person’s upbringing.
  • The core message of the film is this widely shared quote from Gabor Maté: “Trauma is not what happens to you; trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” In the trauma-informed approach, professionals ask “what happened to you?” as a starting point to explore a person’s coping mechanisms to stress, behaviours that cause them health problems. In this film, Gabor uncovers another layer to this important question: it’s not the event itself that traumatizes the individual; it’s the impact inside their body as a result of that event.
  • The film explicitly addresses the importance of sensitive parenting and for example, the importance of not letting babies and infants cry-it-out without any consolation. It is summarised in this quote: “Children don’t get traumatised because they get hurt; children get traumatised because they are alone with the hurt.”
  • The film does not stop at the personal level, but also addresses big issues, like the influence of patriarchy, of capitalism and globalised materialism that often feed competition and prestige and lead to stress that increases the risk of people feeling unworthy and falling short. The link is intriguing: if we lose the connection to our authentic selves (the essence of trauma) and come to experience the world as a dangerous, horrible place, this will inform how we will approach the world around us: aggressively, suspiciously, cunningly. People acting this way, often get rewarded with power, which makes the vicious circle start all over again. Separating the mind from the body and the individual from the environment, still a very dominant approach in medicine, is what we should get rid of in order to heal the world, Maté says.


The makers kindly provide another donation-based screening of the film on July 28th till August 1st. So… if you want to watch the film… grab your chance! You can find the film’s details for registration and information here:
Below, you can find the trailer from the film.

Posted in Book and movie reviews.