Meet the Partners: Kitra Cahana, Story-Sharing Consultant, Director and Videographer

Meet Kitra Cahana, award-winning photojournalist, videographer, documentarist, and artist; Story-Sharing Consultant, Director, and Videographer for the Partnership Grant.

Kitra acts as Story-Sharing Consultant, Director, and Videographer for the Partnership Grant, as well as for the Partnership Development Grant's pilot story-sharing component at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. She directed a small filmmaking team which was embedded for two weeks in an inpatient unit, capturing the work and life stories of nurses and their patients. Our Project Administrator Anna Adjemian spoke with Kitra about her involvement in the project, and the ways in which SBNH connects to her personal work and activism.


Anna Adjemian: Please give us a short background/summary of who you are and what you do professionally.

Kitra Cahana: I’ve been working in documentary since I was sixteen – I started as a photojournalist, working my way up to photographing for The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine. I did my Masters in Visual and Media Anthropology, and over the last six years I’ve branched into documentary filmmaking. The most recent film I co-directed looks at the brokenness within the mental health system in the U.S. and the ways that police forces have exacerbated that brokenness.

Life as a documentarian is the greatest joy. To be allowed into people’s lives at some of the most challenging, transformational, and beautiful times is the greatest privilege I know. It is a special experience to be with other people and experience their worlds, and then translate that to an audience. It’s opened my eyes in ways I don’t have the language for, and hopefully I’ve opened other people’s eyes along the way.


Why did you get involved with this project?

I’ve been involved since very early on in this project. My father is Laurie and Bruce Gottlieb’s Rabbi. In 2011 he had a very rare brain stem stroke, and the Gottliebs were very involved, visiting us in the ICU and staying in close contact with our family during that difficult period. Despite a prolonged stay in the ICU, and a stroke that left him quadriplegic and with a very weakened voice, my father had a transformative and spiritual experience during that time. In the aftermath of the stroke he spoke a lot about the healing relationship that can take place between caregivers and patients. His belief is that healing is always a two-way street; a relationship. Once you enter into a relationship of healing, whether you’re a family member, a doctor, nurse, or orderly, you should expect to have yourself opened to healing as well.

Dr. Gottlieb wrote about his case and his ability to find meaning and joy through his experience in her writings about Strengths-Based Nursing. She shared his story and used it as an example in her teaching. We started having discussions around that time about the power of story sharing, and from those conversations this idea was born – to use documentary filmmaking and storytelling to effect change in the field of nursing.

Over time the project has evolved. The project looks at a theory of transmission of knowledge. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to it. We’re not just making documentary films about nursing; there’s a research question at the heart of this which posits that documentary storytelling can inform the process of academic knowledge creation and that new insights in the field of nursing will emerge from the footage we collect from the field. It’s not only to illustrate certain points that already exist within the body of knowledge of SBNH, but that the lived experiences of nurses and nurse managers captured in verité footage and interviews will reveal new insights into that body of knowledge. We’re building a methodology together. The footage that comes from the field is meant to inform the theory, which is very different from traditional documentary story-telling.

A lot of the audiovisual materials nurses are exposed to in their curricula are actor reenactments. So much is lost in those videos about what it really means to work as a nurse or nurse manager in a clinical environment. The hope with the videos that we’re making is to give students a more authentic experience – documentary filmmaking at its best allows the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of whoever’s story they’re listening to. It opens up a space. It also helps them to connect to their own experiences and to share their stories. I’ve experienced this – my experience of storytelling at its best is that it opens me up to receive knowledge in a more direct fashion. It’s not an intellectual process; it’s a very visceral process of identifying with other humans in their lived experiences.


What does SBNH mean to you?

Getting involved with the SBNH project foreshadowed a new love in my life. Prior to my father’s stroke I didn’t think much about nursing. Then I became a caregiver and started seeing how the world of care is so sidelined in our society. There’s very little glory or recognition going towards the people who give their lives to care for others. Conversations with Dr. Gottlieb and other members of the team only opened my eyes further. Through our project I have come to reflect deeply on nursing and have come to hold nurses in the highest esteem. During the first stage of filming I shadowed nurses at Holland Bloorview, and my love of the profession and the people who give their lives to care for others through pain, loss and healing only grew.

The pandemic has only heightened my sensitivity towards people working in caregiving fields. In March 2020 I started organizing families around my father’s long-term care facility where he has lived since 2012. We supported each other through the grief, anxiety and loss but also tried to see what we could organize to improve the day-to-day conditions of the workers and residents during such a challenging time. In parallel I started an arts and story-based initiative on social media called Artists 4 Long-Term Care, where we invite artists, photographers and creatives of all kinds to make work advocating for the workers and residents of long term care facilities. We call for better pay for workers, minimum staff-to-patient ratios, proper PPE etc. The pandemic revealed the conditions under which these people work. These conditions disrespect nurses; they disrespect our elders. The goal is to bring to light what is very much unseen and to create artwork for a movement.

I don’t know if I would have had the same gravitational pull towards activism at the beginning of the pandemic had I not spent the last few years in dialogue with the SBNH team about nurses’ working conditions in Canada and beyond. It feels like the most obvious thing that we need to preserve the mental and physical wellbeing of the workers who uplift and sustain those who need the most support in our society. To me that’s the very core of Strengths-Based Nursing.


What does this project mean to you/what do you hope to see come out of your work on this project?

My biggest hope is that we make a difference in the lives of nurses and patients. I see the challenges in the healthcare system from the perspective of both a family member and a journalist. I see how nurses and orderlies are treated as if they were dispensable, when in truth the way we treat caretakers is a yardstick for how compassionate and humane we are as a society. Nurses are there when we are at our most vulnerable and needy, and yet they’re worked to the bone with undignified staff-to-patient ratios and wages. I feel so honored to be a part of a project that puts nursing at the center and asks how can we create a healthcare system that is Strengths-Based at every level.


More of Kitra's work can be found here:

"Legacy and Creativity: The Filmmaking and Photography of Kitra Cahana" - from the Fritz Ascher Society, with Kitra Cahana and Ori Soltes

"Immortality, Memory, Creativity & Survival: The Art of Alice Lok Cahana, Ronnie Cahana & Kitra Cahana" - from the Fritz Ascher Society, with Ori Soltes

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