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“My Parents Supported Me Making This Art about Them”: Nira Burstein on Charm Circle

Charm Circle

After appearing in the international competition at Sheffield DocFest 2021 (where I then worked as a programmer) and being hailed by press, juries, and audiences alike as one of the major highlights of the festival, Nira Burstein’s Charm Circle went on to international festivals around the world. I finally caught up with Burstein in Lisbon, after the film’s premiere at Doclisboa, one of Europe’s finest documentary festivals. After COVID prevented me—but not Nira!—from attending Sheffield in June, and with that incarnation of the festival now decisively a thing of the past, I was eager to catch up with her to dig into the dynamics of this special film ahead of its New York premiere at DOC NYC this Sunday the 14th (accompanied by a Q&A with Burstein and executive producer Fred Armisen) . Unlike most films you encounter in the course of programming a documentary festival, where the range of films often runs from icy intellectualism to cloying manipulation, Charm Circle immediately distinguished itself as an unclassifiable vision somehow apt for the time in which we discovered it—the unrelenting winter of 2020/21. 

Burstein’s film is about her family: parents Uri and Raya, sisters Judy and Adina, and—mostly—offscreen, Nira herself. It is a joyous, often piercingly beautiful work of non-fiction, stitched with the deft eye of a talent filmmaker with a background in fiction. But it is also a portrait of a painful kind of disorder. The Burstein family home, located at “Charm Circle,” a cul-de-sac in Queens, is filthy. Uri and Raya, each marked by decades of trauma, alternate between war and indifference. Judy and Adina appear only periodically, each in their own way struggling to express their wants and desires with their parents. In archival footage, we glimpse both childhood joy as well as flashes of the darkness that left its mark on their lives. And yet… and yet… there is an enormous love at Charm Circle, overpowering at times. We witness moment after moment in which everybody is struggling to live—together. Trying not to get fired, to hustle for a bit of extra cash, to get a hold of another cigarette, to play another melody on the guitar. The obvious dysfunction is, in the end, its own type of functioning. When you’re trying to live under the force of brutal social winds, you have to find some way to get through the day with dignity—even if, in Raya’s case, it means learning to say “Fuck you” to her husband. 

Trapped in our homes, with the world crumbling around us, Burstein’s film showed that, even among dysfunction, trauma, and seemingly intractable bouts of pain, there is still space for love, for dignity, and most importantly for healing. We are all trying to get by, just like the Bursteins who live at Charm Circle.

Filmmaker: When did this become a movie? Because this is also your life. At which point did it move from just a few images, ideas and so on, to actually becoming a film?

Burtein: After the first shoot I did at my parents’ house, I shared the footage with a few close friends—who are also filmmakers—and they seemed very enthusiastic, enthusiastic that something was there. At that point, the story and structure and narrative weren’t clear. But we knew that there was something going on, in terms of the house being so cinematic, my parents as characters that you want to watch, want to follow and so on. Those were the seeds of Charm Circle. That’s what I knew were there, going into the project. But I needed to share these first images with some people, just to be sure that it wasn’t, like, “Is it just me?” I mean, this is my life—maybe only I will find this interesting. But it quickly caught on. 

Filmmaker: At that point, you were simply showing these friends scenes.

Burstein: Not even scenes, because that would imply they were edited. No, I just went over to the house, catching the funny things they are doing, saying, the cats, the way that my parents go around solving the problems of the day, you know? That’s what I had to show.

Filmmaker: But from what you told me before, it really sounded like a shoot. I know you come from fiction. It’s hard to shoot your parents in your childhood home. So, you structured it that way, as a production with a certain amount of hours and a particular creative focus, that fly-on-the-wall filmmaking doesn’t necessarily imply.

Burstein: That’s what I would go there to do. Sometimes I would set up the whole rig—which was actually super messy and complicated, because of what I could afford—outside the house, then knock on the door, because then I knew I’d be surprised by whatever reaction that might bring out from them. In something like this, I wanted it to be as truthful as possible—you don’t really get that when you ask people to repeat something specific, a gesture, a moment. “Can we just have you nod after the fact?” There was none of that, we were just piecing it all together in post. Trying to be there all day. I would shoot sometimes for 8 hours, then like, “OK, done for the day.” The brilliant thing is, it was treated very much like this is something we’re doing. 

Filmmaker: There’s a question that always comes up in documentaries like this—does the camera change the behaviour of those it’s pointed at? But in this film, I had the sense that at certain points they are more open because of the presence of the camera. Like it’s almost the opposite—you, Nira, are in the film but you’re not physically in it for the most part. We are sensing subconsciously that there is this barrier between you and your subjects—that is, the camera. This sense of play that you are describing—that you aren’t just visiting your parents and drinking coffee but that you are all creatively participating in the making of a piece of constructed art—is somehow teasing things out of them, particularly in very intimate moments.

Burstein: It’s funny that you mention this idea of sitting there and having coffee. In a more “functional” household, maybe that’s something we would do. But that’s not something that happens here—that cup is certainly going to be very dirty and so I don’t want to drink from it. As you mention, I made narrative films before this. My parents have always been very supportive of my making films, or really whatever art I make. And they have been very involved, either as inspiration or actively involved in the making of it. Maybe sitting across somebody and having a coffee is maybe the way other people interact with their parents, but this is the way I interact with my parents. And for me, it feels like one of the best ways—I do think this shared creative work was rewarding in many ways. Being able to observe, listen, understand. I intentionally spoke a lot less being behind the camera; structurally, I didn’t want that to be part of the film. But it also allowed me to observe them without adding my two cents. Without the camera, I probably would have done so. I would’ve gone back and forth a lot more. In terms of your question, yes, it affected me very much in that moment. For my parents, it was more of an effect after the film was edited. They didn’t know what was going on until they saw it in post. But intimate moments…

Filmmaker: Well, it sounds like you fostered an open, creative atmosphere that wouldn’t be possible had anybody else been behind the camera. Your parents honestly seem open in general, but perhaps this sense of a film being made, together, as a shared act, means that they were more willing to go to painful places.

Burstein: I think you’re right. My parents are both independently very creative people, very artistically inclined. I don’t think you need to be an artist to appreciate art, right? But with this shorthand, we don’t have to explain certain things to one another. My parents supported me making this art about them, so they jumped in with two feet. They didn’t hold back. Being aware that there are issues and problems is not the same as knowing how to solve them, right? My parents are very much aware of the issues, but solving them is another matter. This isn’t about that, this is about what’s going on. Besides saying, “No, you can’t come over,” there’s no hiding it in that house. It’s around them all the time, it’s in the very way they interact. So, I’m grateful for my parents. They have always been this way with me. Really open and honest—sometimes far too much. That’s who they are. They put it out on the table.

Filmmaker: This is really an intensely structured film. Can you maybe talk about that moment in the shoot when the movie begins to take shape after such a long time?

Burstein: Yeah. I really enjoy editing. Perhaps you’ll understand that I enjoy editing far more than I enjoyed being in that house, when it was difficult simply to stand there with all that stuff happening all around. That’s the area of filmmaking where I put the most effort—determining the structure. The first year and a half of shooting was me basically working to capture what could be great moments. Then, at that point, I learned about the home videos, for example. 

Filmmaker: Can you talk about those videos, which your father shot on video throughout your childhood? I realised watching the film again in Lisbon just how much you use it to expand on an idea or a sensation from the present-day footage as a bridge. There is great darkness and great playfulness there, just like the stuff you shot in the present day.

Burstein: The way I look at the present-day stuff and the home videos is, it’s like a conversation. Just like I’m having a conversation with my parents about life, these two elements are having a conversation and creating something from it. The other editor on the film, Michael [Levine], spoke about it as something you do in layers. When you start the film, you are slowly adding layers with each thing—transitions are so important this way, both in editing and also for the audience to feel like they understand, “Why am I here right now?” Finding the entry-points to where a home video moment can work really well was important, so that you don’t notice the work of it so much.: “Oh, here we are again, back at the home video.” 

Filmmaker: And it was a huge archive, right?

Burstein: It was actually only about 30 or 40 hours, which in the world of documentary is not a ton of footage. But there is really some remarkable documentation of things that happened in our lives in those tapes. And I watched everything in preparation for the edit, made a whole Excel spreadsheet. I didn’t know then which things would matter where. 

Filmmaker: You initially didn’t conceive of you or your sisters having a role at all in the film. In the finished film, you all play supporting but nonetheless totally decisive and essential roles. If I remember correctly, you said this came from discovering how vital you all were in the archival footage.

Burstein: Yeah, I knew in discovering that that I could tell a much bigger story, rather than a straight verité portrait of the day-to-day life of my parents. I was thinking along the lines of Grey Gardens: Shooting them day-to-day, I’m not gonna be on camera, not gonna react, interact. Not interview my parents at all—I mean, I hate the word “interview,” because it’s so formal. But not to talk about stuff, stuff from the past. Then, watching the home videos, I realised I could tell a much broader story than what was happening in the current moment—and a much more important story, I think. I thought, you know, if I’m gonna include that, we can also bring the family unit into the film itself.

Filmmaker: The presence of your sisters brings another layer of love to the film. So many incredible moments with your sisters—the scene I love where Adina comes and hugs Judy and says, “Oh, you’re such a good hugger.”

Burstein: There’s a love in this family that is just a really beautiful thing. And that’s special: Not because of the problems, but because it’s there. 

Filmmaker: It’s also connected to music, which is one of the throughlines of the film. Two things related to your dad: he wanted to be a musician, he’s always playing music. But you never see him finish a song, he’s only ever riffing, experimenting, trying to get on a wavelength. It’s the beauty of playing that counts. There’s that, and also the fact that your dad was quite literally a collaborator—he did the soundtrack for Charm Circle.

Burstein: One time my dad said to me—maybe it’s not even true where you’re from—but in America you have to have a career to be considered a musician. Yes, I’m sure there’s a part of my dad that wishes that this was what he was doing professionally, music. Definitely more than real estate, I guess. But also like you said, the playing, he didn’t ever really do it for the camera. He was doing it for himself. I would be upstairs with my mom, filming and—the scene where he is playing Schubert. He’s like “Oh, I get messed up at the second part.” I just happened to come across him playing. For me, it’s one of the most moving moments of the film. He plays so beautifully and then he stops—he gets caught up. I don’t know if it comes off as a little bit of a surprise that he did do most of the music or not, but it’s almost about revealing that idea over the course of the film. By the time you get to the credits, I would hope you have guessed that he was responsible for it.

Filmmaker: What was that process like?

Burstein: Most of it came from the shoot—happening to be there shooting, recording the audio, as he plays, then fitting it somewhere else in the film. There were a few more times when we were really wrapping up, in post-production, I would be like, “If you’re the composer, I’m going to need this, this, and this,” “This is the feeling” and so on. That was a much more difficult collaboration but, you know, he did it. There are some other pieces but yeah, most of it is his.

Filmmaker: And you were watching a cut of the film together and scoring that way?

Burstein: I resisted as long as possible sharing footage with him. There were a few times where I would show him something, but generally I didn’t want him to get too wrapped up in trying to time it perfectly or something like that. I wanted it to feel very improv. Sometimes he’d get fancy with the effects on the synthesiser and I’d be like—no, not happening. I was very much like—guitar, piano. I didn’t want it to go too far outside the bounds of that. Keeping an improvisational feel to it. Not that there is anything wrong with something more structured, but by then this movie already had its own language musically that I wanted to stick to.

Filmmaker: Can you tell us about the moment you first showed it to everybody?

Burstein: The first time was pre-pandemic. Adina had come out to visit, Judy was over too and all five of us watched it together. It was really special, really emotional. It was intense. It’s a weird, surreal thing to see yourself like that. At the end of the day, what was wonderful was that nobody had any notes—nobody was like, you can’t put this in, you gotta take that out. There was absolutely trust in my family for me to put this out into the world the way I wanted to do it. That was what I was hoping for in sharing the movie with them—that they would be okay with it. I don’t think I could’ve put it out there if they didn’t give me that blessing. But then again, if that was the case, they wouldn’t be the people they are in the first place. 

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