“Charm Circle,” Nira Burstein, director. DOC NYC 2021 Special Mention.
“The Forgotten Ones,” Michale Boganim, director. US premiere. French/Hebrew with English subtitles.
Available online through DOC NYC 2021 throughout the US through Nov. 28.
“Charm Circle” could well be the Jewish “Grey Gardens.” Back in 1975, the Maysles brothers documented the attention starved black sheep of the Bouvier family— mother and daughter in their decaying East Hampton mansion. Unlike Albert and David Maysles, who came under fire for exploiting two eccentric women in the cult classic “Grey Gardens,” in this film Nira Burstein is back where she grew up. With an electric guitar soundtrack written and performed by her father, on and off camera, she’s wading into the chaos and debris of her own family. “Abba” (father in Hebrew) Uri in red yarmulka and pony tail, and “ima” (mother) Raya in oversized Nature Conservancy T-shirt, seem to have no problem with the unblinking, though occasionally unfocused eye of Nira’s camera. How did their lives descend into such a literal and metaphorical mess?
The jaw dropping clutter, the cats that come and go, one not-too-healthy looking kitten, Uri’s array of recording equipment, dinner on an unmade bed, filthy fingernails, broken blinds, an exercise ball. This is an anxiety producing parallel universe in a neatly middle class neighborhood where the neighbors are neither seen nor heard.
Nervous breakdowns are part of family life. Judy, the oldest of the three daughters, has developmental problems and doesn’t live at home. Nira’s younger sister, Adina, has escaped to Olympia, Washington, and is getting married to two other women.
Maybe a lesson for all of us, Uri rails against the labels applied to daughter Judy – Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder. “Everyone’s labeling. It’s the behavior, not the labels.” And if you boil down some of the Burstein life issues, they’re basic. They’re living from paycheck to paycheck. She’s frustrated at not having had sex in 10 years. The one thing Raya envies her sister is her grandchildren. Amazingly uncensored on camera, could all the home’s layers of debris be Raya’s defense?
Even with the tension and threats, this is a gentle film by a filmmaker who may want to know how she escaped the family curses. Perhaps the whole film was worth the moment her mom tells her, “Nira, I just want to say I’m sorry for not being there for you. For making you a grownup when you were still a kid.”
In an interview this month in “Women and Hollywood,” Nira Burstein explains, “Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler said, ‘Do the work that scares you.’ Well, ‘Charm Circle’ has been terrifying.”
It’s hard to imagine a male filmmaker admitting terror. It seems natural for a woman.
“The Forgotten Ones” is one French-Israeli filmmaker’s attempt to explain her Moroccan-Israeli-French roots to her young daughter, a symbol of the next generation who has no speaking part. The message, with archival footage and extensive interviews, is Israel’s unrelenting discrimination against the Mizrahim, Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and America settled in the young country’s established cities and on kibbutzim. The Mizrahi Jews were dumped in primitive development towns. This story is not new, and perhaps the most searing documentation was screened in last year’s Other Israel Film Festival. “Ma’abarot,” directed by Dina Zvi Riklis with archival footage and interviews of Mizrahi immigrants, documents how Mizrahi Jews were living with European Jews in unlivable transit camps. They’d awake one morning to find the European Jews relocated and their people left behind, permanently.
Director Michale Boganim has attempted to combine her own story with interviews in development towns throughout Israel. Mizrahi men and women of all ages describe how their dreams have been stolen. What’s original is Boganim’s personal story. Her parents emigrated from Morocco, believing they were going to the Promised Land. They ended up in a desert development town where her father was unable to use his training as an engineer. Eventually he became politically active as a Black Panther but, and here’s the unusual part, he and his wife gave up on Israel and went to France. They landed in one of the suburbs in the outer ring of Paris, home to the underclass of North Africans. And then, another twist, they eventually returned to Israel, settling now by choice in the periphery.
It’s a very different roots story from the tiny stage of “Charm Circle,” but this moviegoer wishes Michale Boganim had concentrated on telling the Mizrahi story of outrage through her own family’s three countries, three generations journey.
And now a callout to all who crave “the definitive history of feminist art” — artist, writer, director, producer Lynn Hershman Leeson’s monumental “!W.A.R. !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION.” The film, soundtrack by Carrie Brownstein, was selected exactly 10 years ago by MoMA as one of the three best documentaries of the year. Started in 1966 and completed 42 years later, the project turned into filming the women inventing feminist art in the upheaval of the Vietnam War, Black power and the women’s movement while the (male) art world remained locked into Minimalism. Follow-up interviews with the revolutionaries 40 years later and interviews with the next generation – feminist artists who’ve never heard of the art world’s feminist pioneers—show it’s time for another call to action.
DVD available through www.zeitgeistfilms.com