Nira Burstein’s Charm Circlec is a thought-provoking & intimate film. Throughout all of the disarray in the Burstein’s lives, there is always something to grab onto to stay afloat.
After uncovering a treasure trove of home videos documenting the moments of love, laughter, and musical expression that punctuated an otherwise tumultuous upbringing. Filmmaker Nira Burstein returns to her childhood home – now crumbling from the inside out – to explore whether she and her two sisters can reconnect with her parents. Catalysed by the announcement of her younger sister’s polyamorous wedding, refuelling tensions threaten to sever what’s left of the family bond.
Depending on your upbringing you will either not relate at all to what director Nira Burstein shows us in her film, or you will resonate heavily with it. On a personal note there is an awful lot to resonate with in Charm Circle for those who have any form of personal struggles with mental health in their family or close circle. We see the difficult times, but we also know about the better times and Burstein excellently shows both, while highlighting her main points.
One can only imagine how Nira felt returning home and seeing the state of disrepair her parents live in. From personal experience, shock hits you when you see how far down a close family member’s life has spiralled, and as Burstein’s camera roams around her parents’ home. You can feel the palpable sadness as she asks her mother why the house is the way it is. The shock further increases when we get into Uri and Raya’s bedroom and realise that it isn’t just the living room in such a state. It is the entire house.
This is accentuated when Nira’s youngest sister Adina arrives home, and the true shock and sadness are visible on her face for the first time. You feel for the family in those moments, though with Adina’s reactions you assume that Nira had a similiar emotion, but she was stuck behind the camera, so we are not able to see it.
The most alert and aware both Ari and Raya appear in Charm Circle is when we see them play music or talk about music either in the past from home recordings or Nira’s camera. The seemingly frail Uri becomes an entirely different person when behind the piano or when strumming his guitar. Similarly, Raya has joy in her soul when we see footage of her playing the recorder. Music appears to be their getaway from the troubles they are experiencing, and at times other than each other, it seems to be the main thing keeping them going.
When it is revealed how both Ari and Raya’s mental health struggles have taken such a toll on their lives over the years, you understand why their current living situation is how it is. As Raya began to struggle with the pressures of being a mother and with the added worries of trying to graduate from college, self-harm and hospitalisation come to the fore. This lingers in Raya’s life for a long time, often leaving Ari alone to raise his daughters alone. Which brings his own mental issues as the strain of that takes a toll on him. The more we see older home footage the more we evidently see how it was damaging not only his mental health but his physical health.
These struggles are exemplified when we see how a very young Nira would take on the mother role when Raya was in the hospital, watching her clean and tidy and take on far too much. Something that Raya comments on later in the documentary. When Nira eventually moves out of the family home, the role of someone taking on that responsibility was never really been taken up. As her parent’s mental health has declined, such responsibilities as cleaning naturally fall to the wayside. It is these moments where we link back to the older footage that helps elevate Charm Circle. By giving us this rare and in-depth look at her family life, we can connect how our family struggles bear more semblance than we would like to admit.
Charm Circle provides a pretty damning look at how two people with children were left to fend for themselves when they blatently needed help. With that then cascading down to their children in one form or another. What Ari and Raya had hoped for in their lives never reaches their fullest as their journey takes drastically different paths. Ari, in attempting to make it as a musician, instead of going down the career presented to him on a silver platter he wastes it. This could possibly due to the strain he had caring for Raya and raising his young daughters. So instead of heaping more pressure onto himself he went towards what he enjoyed, his escape.
Similarly with Raya, she also intended to teach and be the person to help children. Yet other than the hospitalisation visits, there is never much mention of professionals being there for her when she was younger, causing her to have these deep-rooted issues now long into adulthood. Those are only being supported by a psychiatrist.
It is also clear how much their children love them but are also struggling with everything that has gone on in their childhood. A short conversation between Nira and Adina shows how she understands why Nira moved out on her own. Especially now that she has moved away and tried to have some form of distance between her and her parents. The fear of their mental health being dragged down by two people who are suffering is clear, and again. It highlights the slight that Ari and Raya have experienced from health professionals that their struggles were able to get this far.
What Burstein does best in her feature documentary debut is that she doesn’t hammer these points home to her audience; she highlights them enough for us to work it out. This is probably due to the narrative that she wants to tell. Still, even by just highlighting the issues that she does, we become aware of it. As mentioned, seep it into our own experiences, making this a memorable feature.
The bravery to film her own family should always be taken into account for pieces like this. There is no easy way to do that and still be as impartial as possible, so when we do hear Nira talk to her family, you sense she is doing so out of love and that it would at times be plain odd if she didn’t speak up at all. Such as the house scene, she asks why the house is the way it is because, of course, she would! Burstein toes the line magnificently and allows her film to feel and be as authentic as possible.
As we reach towards the final moments of Charm Circle, a smile comes onto your face, and whether it is false hope or not, you truly hope for the best for this family. You want all the damaged connections between daughters and parents to heal; you want for Ari and Raya to reform their bond and for their lives to improve. Also, it should be noted that while there are downbeat moments in Burstein’s film, there is also a lot of love here. Raya and Ari do love each other, and despite their strained relationship at times, they are there when it matters. This is shown perfectly later in the film.
Throughout the documentary, despite all of the struggles, there is humour in there, and you see some of what Ari and Raya were like when they were younger. They want the best for their children and at times become stereotypical parents from another generation in their viewpoints. At times not fully comprehending at first, but willing to accept and learn. Charm Circle takes us through this families journey, and as it reaches its finale, you hope that the corner that has been turned leads down a better path for all involved because these five people deserve it. By staying connected and learning to adapt, the Burstein’s show us that there are ways out of the turmoil of spiraling with mental health issues, and we can only hope that they are in a more stabilised position and closer together now.
I could go on and on about Charm Circle, but it is probably best if you just try to catch it yourself. It is a wholehearted success for Burstein and hopefully opens up doors for her as a filmmaker. An added hope is that her film helps make a difference within her family and others who can relate.
Charm Circle is available to UK audiences until Tuesday 8th June during the Sheffield Doc Festival here for £5.
To catch more of our reviews throughout Sheff Doc Fest 2021, Have a look below:
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
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