Kitra Cahana talks about how COVID lockdowns led to her making an award-winning film about her disabled father

Filmmaker Kitra Cahana (Credit: Steph Martyniuk)

A film about a quadriplegic rabbi’s experience being isolated in a long-term care facility during pandemic lockdown recently won the Hot Docs award for Best Canadian Short Documentary.

Perfecting the Art of Longing was written and directed by Kitra Cahana and intersperses security camera footage of her father, Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, in his Montreal facility with footage from home videos and recent video calls. The film is overlaid with his poetic and philosophical musings on life, love and family.

Rabbi Cahana suffered a stroke in 2011 that left him almost totally paralyzed, able to communicate only by blinking his eyes. He has since been able to regain his speech and some motor movements, but still requires full-time care.

“My needs are endless since the stroke. All the things that are simple are beyond me,” Rabbi Cahana says in the film. “But there’s a holy way of asking for help. And that’s what I’m learning —to say: ‘I need you.’”

Kitra Cahana began making the film after she was approached by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) to contribute to their series of COVID-related films.

When the pandemic started, Cahana became very engaged in activism connected to long-term care, so the NFB asked her to make a film on that theme. She began recording her father in his room and interviewing him regularly.

Near the end of the process, when the NFB was putting the finishing touches on the film, Cahana recalls feeling emotional about what she had created.

“I remember feeling, ‘wow, I made a little nest for myself that I can return to in difficult times.’ Because the film, especially the ending, is such a celebration of our family life, my childhood. It’s a meditation on life, family, love, fatherhood,” she said.

“And so, when I get to that part of the film, I find that I just sink into it. I always keep a folder on my desktop. It just says, ‘Kitra love.’ It’s images and text messages that always make me feel loved, that show that I am loved. And I feel like the film was also part of that.”

Karen Cahana—Rabbi Cahana’s wife and Kitra’s mother—was at first unsure about how she felt that her family’s intimate story was going to be shared for public consumption. She especially feared that people would view her family’s story as tragic, even though she does not relate to it in that way. But when she saw people responding to it as a story about family love, and not a tragedy, her fears were alleviated.

“There’s a piece of vulnerability about sending that story into the world. In how it gets told and how it gets framed… how it lands” she said. “It’s claiming the love story of family… and hearing that that’s how it was received by people, instead of as a tragic story. I don’t relate to our story as a tragic story, but I know other people do. So I think when I heard that people received it in that light, it felt less vulnerable to me.”

Rabbi Cahana certainly doesn’t see his story as tragic. While many people may fear ending up in a situation like his—confined to a bed and completely reliant on others—he has everything he needs to not only survive, but thrive.

“While everybody was locked down and locked out, I stayed locked in. I was having a great time. I’ve been enjoying the gift of internalizing everything and exploring a life inside. And so, I was confident and present with the Godly magic. Even in the condition of outside danger, I felt protected and secure,” he said.

“The only movie I really want to make is what I’m doing with this time: practicing the art of belonging. Life is for who you belong to. And my sacred world is the family to which I belong. It’s the holiest gift we have, and it can never be taken away from us as long as we’re alive.”

Watch Perfecting the Art of Longing for free at