DOC NYC 2021 Women Directors: Meet Nira Burstein – “Charm Circle”

Nira Burstein is an emerging director based in New York City and was recently selected for Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Burstein is an Independent Film Project (now The Gotham) Documentary Fellow, and her work has been supported by the Jerome Foundation. She has directed several narrative short films, including “Gangrenous,” which premiered at the Nantucket Film Festival and “Off & Away” at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Burstein has also written, produced, and directed several music videos, premiering on VICE and Impose Magazine, among others.

Charm Circle” starts screening at the 2021 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 14. The fest runs from November 10-28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

NB: “Charm Circle” is a film about my family. It’s about the last few years in terms of following the day-to-day, but it is also about how we got there — and that’s where all the home videos come in. Over time, the house I grew up in, and which my parents continued to live in after my sisters and I left, would become an increasingly unwelcome place due to the overwhelming mess inside. It is both a physical and metaphorical reflection of the struggles my family faces and I wanted to explore how that happens.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

NB: So many things. I think my parents are fascinating people, but I don’t always understand them, so bringing the camera in was a way for me to interact in another way.

I also think they have a wonderful spirit about them. They’ve been through so much, struggle with a lot, but find joy in the most unexpected ways. It’s very inspiring — and fun — to watch.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

NB: In sharing this film with an audience, it’s not so much what I want them to take away about my family, but how it relates to theirs or other people they may know but may not completely understand. It would be great if something resonated, brought new context — even to the person sitting on the bus across from them.

Sharing this movie is about opening up dialogue about difficult things, including mental health, that are often swept under the rug— but not in the case of this house!

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NB: Making something that I felt represented the truth, how I felt, and everyone’s perspective in the film while also being entertaining. It took a long time in the edit room to feel like I was telling a story that had all these elements.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

NB: While we did get a grant from the Jerome Foundation and small donations here and there, most of production was made by a dedicated team who wanted to see the project through. You can’t really pay for that kind of dedication and I’m eternally grateful for the team. The film was made in association with Gigantic Pictures who came on board during post, and their post house, Gigantic Studios, provided color and sound finishing.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

NB: The film “Donnie Darko.” I want to make movies that are entertaining, nuanced, and complex.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

NB: The best advice I got was from cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, who has been a collaborator on the film since the very beginning. She said, “Do the work that scares you.” Well, “Charm Circle” has been terrifying!

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

NB: That being a woman is a powerful thing. Know your strengths and harness them. Your individuality, which comprises so many things, makes you unique. Where you need help, build a team that supports you.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NB: Mary Harron’s “American Psycho.” She brought such an incisive and humanistic portrait of a mad man and you could see how his brain worked — and to an uncomfortable degree, I could kind of understand how he got there.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

NB: Yes, a lot of writing. I’ve been writing a script with a horror-esque, dark comedy edge to it called “Cassie, Kit & Boy.” I hope to get going on another documentary project soon. I have missed working with the camera during the pandemic and look forward to being on set.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing— and creating— negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make the doc world more inclusive?

NB: Those voices need to be in the room, behind the scenes, and in front of the camera collaborating and consulting. I think the best work integrates multiple perspectives, enriching the project’s complexity and building universality.

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