Charm Circle

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production


A cinema-verité portrait of an eccentric New York City family navigating the chaos that divides them.


We first meet Uri and Raya, a couple in their early 60s who live in Flushing, Queens, New York. Uri is a yarmulke-wearing Jewish musician whose every utterance comes out like a line of beat poetry. Raya has the kind of sweet and innocent smile that makes her forever young but her soul-piercing eyes tell another story. Their house, yet another character, ties together thirty years of family history and is in utter disrepair.

Filming them in a cinema vérité style is their middle daughter, Nira, 31, capturing their day-to-day lives: trying to make ends meet, managing the affairs of the house, all while navigating a relationship that started as a mad romance and has evolved into them living as roommates.

On the other side of the country, their youngest daughter, Adina, 27, has built a new life in Olympia, Washington. She struggles to make sense of her parent’s situation but keeps her distance, not wanting to repeat their mistakes. While visiting her parent’s house, Adina announces her polyamorous wedding. Uri refuses to accept Adina’s choice, threatening to separate the family for good.

The film weaves together present-day struggles with necessary breakthroughs delivered through music, art, humor and the filming itself. Via the camera, Nira is given the space to explore her family from a more objective place- she is in and of it, while observing the life which at times she might have forgotten.

Through home videos that Uri shot, Nira re-discovers her family’s history through another lens. At five years old, the eldest daughter, Judy, started showing signs of a developmental disability, triggering Raya’s mental health breakdown. Uri worked around the clock to support the family and Nira took care of her sisters and the home- it was difficult, but the family was a team. These videos, in sharp contrast to the current family dynamic, uncover a warmth buried by years of despair and regret.

We follow the Bursteins on their fraught path toward self-realization. Ultimately, Uri relents in his position and the family attends Adina’s wedding in Olympia. Raya and Uri experience a re-kindling of their relationship, it’s not perfect, but it’s meaningful.  A meditation on love and sacrifice, Charm Circle explores what makes a family.


Charm Circle is about my family, and is told in an intimate observational approach via candid present day footage and multifaceted home videos from the 80s and 90s. Though the film’s structure skates between the present and past, it’s our current everyday lives that serve as an anchor for the story, spanning about two years. The viewer is dropped right into the middle of our world, and delves into the personal and the psychological with a frank rawness that is reminiscent of Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles and An American Family produced by Craig Gilbert. The audience will experience moments of fascination, discomfort, humor, sometime simultaneously, and ultimately, I hope, recognition and empathy. I’m striving for the edit to layer these varied tones, to soften the edges and create entry points for the viewer to engage with the people on screen. The pacing will be organic to our natural family rhythm which is sometimes frantic and at other times subdued, and will move forward in an approach that alternates between delicate and gregarious. Tonally, the film seeks to balance the wry humor, musicality, and creativity that’s natural to our personality as a family, with the underlying poignancy and tension that you’ll see clouds our world. In terms of visual approach, I often keep the characters that are at odds with each other in the same dynamic frame, and allow their interaction to play out within that wide shot. This allows the viewer to see reactions as they happen, instead of through editing, keeping the tension rising. This framing further amplifies the authenticity of each moment, and usually ends up creating an identifiable, humorous situation that lends a lighter dynamic to the film’s overall tone. I also use textural archival footage of both joyful and solemn aspects of my family’s past. Growing up, my father obsessively recorded everything, including upbeat occasions like birthdays and recitals, but he also shot the perplexing evolution of my sister Judy’s developmental disabilities, as well as times of deep despair, like when our mom was away in psychiatric hospitals. This unique catalog of home video ultimately expands each family member’s story trajectory, highlighting touchstones and turning points that enables the viewer to reflect on how far we’ve come as a unit, while also creating a space for hope in the future. In reflection of all this old footage my father shot, the act of me bringing a camera back into our lives for this film was like picking up a baton, and their awareness of the camera adds another layer to the film. Though a very low level of performing for the camera is inevitable, my family members really used it as an opportunity to express their whole, complicated selves, and eventually, as a tool for reconnecting with each other.


Nira Burstein - Producer/Director

While pursuing a bachelor's degree in Media Studies at Queens College, Nira began her career as an editor and has worked her way into directing. Nira has held positions at Turn of the Century Pictures and the Douglas Keeve Studio. She has written, directed and produced several short films and music videos. Her short fiction film “I Said Light” premiered at the Portland Underground Film Festival and another fiction short, ”Off & Away,” premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival in 2014. Charm Circle is Nira's documentary debut about her family and it is slated for release in 2018. Nira was born, raised, and continues to live and work in New York City.

Michael Levine - Editor
Michael Levine is an Emmy Award winning film editor who got his start working with Ken Burns on Baseball (1994), and The West (1995). Acclaimed filmmaker Bennett Miller hired Michael to edit The Cruise which got a theatrical release in 1998. Amongst his other notable films are: Amir Bar Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That (2007), Jennifer Venditti’s Billy The Kid (2007), Liz Garbus’ Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), and Sarah & Ken Burns’ Central Park Five (2012). Michael edited three films for Sebastian Junger that included the Oscar nominated, Restrepo (2010) (co-directed by Tim Hetherington), for which he received his Emmy for Outstanding Editing.


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