When filmmaker Nira Burstein picked up a Black Magic camera, she knew where she wanted to point it: at her own family. Over the course of six years she would re-enter her cluttered childhood home in the Queens borough of New York City, on a cul de sac called Charm Circle, where her parents eked out a precarious existence. Against the background of her younger sister’s impending polyamorous wedding, and through childhood home videos, Burstein explores the dysfunction and mental illness which have been a constant in her family. Charm Circle is an intimate, emotional and often funny foray into Burstein’s family life, richly deserving of the audience award it won at Sheffield DocFest, where it had its world premiere and was a word of mouth hit. I met with Burstein during the festival to ask her about the making of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Could you talk me through the process of moving out and whether you began to look through your family differently once you left home and how the film came about?
Nira Burstein: I moved out when I was 18 or 19 and it took me a while to want to go back again. As the years went on after I left, it seemed to feel increasingly worse going over there. Bringing the camera in was a way to bring in something that I enjoy doing to their house. And in a selfish way I thought ‘if I’m going to be here I have to figure out a way to feel welcome’. The filming started in 2015. I would go over maybe every two or three months. And then as I saw a story element developing I would spend more time there. I thought ‘I need to be around to get this while it was happening. No one’s reaction is ever the same in hindsight so you have to get it in the moment.’
CN: How did you go about getting their participation and being on board with it? I know you have one scene where your dad is snapping at you about filming and it’s great to have that in there. Talk me a little bit through their cooperation and did you feel like they ever acted differently because you had the camera there?
NB: I honestly think it was very natural. I don’t think they treated me any differently with the camera or without a camera. I had just bought the camera and I was really wanting to shoot and make something. I don’t know if any of us knew that it would get quite as involved as it did. But my parents have always been really supportive about my projects and have participated in other ways.
There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything is a blessing.Nira Burstein
CN: That’s what’s so great about the film is that it’s clearly a loving family but with a lot of problems.
NB: Yes it’s very much the way things are. What I am so grateful for about my family is how much love there is. I think that is what gives people space to watch this movie even in the more difficult moments, because that does exist. And I think that’s the way that people feel safe about it. I am very inspired by my parents. I think they have a wonderful spirit for what they have been through and their sense of humour is incredible.
CN: Did you get them to talk about things that they wouldn’t usually have talked about, as is often the case in autobiographical filmmaking? Like the disparity in their sex drives – I felt like your mum was getting that on the record.
NB: I definitely feel that my mum felt this was a platform to let things out that she maybe hasn’t had a chance to say. And whether it was just meant for me or whether she meant it for the whole world I’m not really sure. Ultimately she’s okay with sharing all of it.
CN: What was it like for you looking through all those home videos? I imagine it was a bit painful to see your parents, as it was striking in the film how much they have changed, and how much more mainstream they seemed thirty years ago.
NB: This was part of the journey that went on behind the camera: me recognising how one can take for granted their childhood and not realise how that ends up playing a part in everyone’s life. And realising how much this thing they went through affected them; it changed them.
CN: Which thing is that?
NB: Specifically I think taking care of my older sister (who has lifelong learning disabilities). There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything’s a blessing. And that’s all true but it’s still really hard.
CN: You look back on your childhood as a happy one, do you?
NB: Yes for the most part. When I was eight, and this is in the movie, for various reasons my childhood just kind of stopped. It just became a lot of responsibility. But there was still a lot of happiness and fun after that.
CN: You’ve described how the camera was useful for you, giving something that you like to do when you visit them and I totally get that. Is there anything that you are hoping that the film does in a larger sense now that it’s made? Is there an impact that you hope it has?
NB: The personal is universal. If we can be okay about sharing personal stuff then it opens a conversation. And so I do hope that the film gets seen. I hope that it brings some joy and brings about a conversation they might not have had otherwise. We don’t really know what’s going on with the person across the room or on the sofa or wherever they are.