Taking on the Personal Documentary: First Day Back

As the medium of podcasting continues to flourish and flower into new forms, it’s interesting to consider how the most popular podcasts will spawn similar approaches to different material. Of course, some approaches are easier to imitate than others. This is why there are so many podcasts that feature long-form interviews and discussions and so few that include tightly edited non-fiction narratives and documentaries. The latter category simply requires a lot more work. But one approach I’d love to see more podcasters try is the personal documentary. 

Most documentarians use the tools of their trade to illuminate some little known corner of the world, but in a personal documentary, those same tools are used to examine something in the documentarian’s own life. The best recent example of this is the first season of StartUp. The show wasn’t compelling just because Alex Blumberg told the story of how a business got started; it was compelling because he used the microphone to expose his doubts and fears and to ask hard questions and get hard answers from his wife, his funders, and his own burned-out employees. It remains to be seen whether the show can maintain that sense of drama in future seasons when it begins to document the start up of a different company.

In the meantime, one promising new show that takes a similar approach is First Day Back, a podcast about making a gradual return to the workforce after years as a stay-at-home parent. The show’s host, Tally Abecassis, is a documentary filmmaker living in Montreal. She stopped making films six years ago when she had her first child and continued to stay at home after her second. So far the show has documented her first tentative steps into the workforce: putting her younger son into daycare, applying for a grant to make a new film, and taking meetings with potential partners, all while reflecting on her own fears and doubts.

The opening of the first episode felt a bit stilted, but Abecassis quickly grew on me. She’s a good writer and reader of her own thoughts about why she’s been out of the workforce for so long. She has doubts about whether she’s waited too long or whether she’s even making the right decision to put her son in daycare. She’s thoughtful and occasionally wry, but mainly just honest. Sometimes she just talks into the microphone, radio diary style, which is not easy to do well, but she pulls it off. There’s a remarkable frankness and freshness in her voice.

More than anything, though, the show demonstrates that her skills as a documentary filmmaker translate to the podcast realm. This kind of material risks navel gazing, but she addresses that issue head-on in the first two episodes. She turns her microphone outward, asking friends and colleagues their thoughts about her predicament. The show really shines when she interviews her family members, including her brother (who talks about the thwarted business dreams of their stay-home-mother), her father (who confuses the meaning of feminist and feminine), and her husband (who has to answer the scary question, “Do you describe me as a stay-at-home mom to other people?”) Best of all are the interviews with her two sons, including the heartbreaking moment when her three-year-old tells her why he holds a picture of her as he falls asleep at daycare.

This podcast is not the next Serial or 99% Invisible – it doesn’t have that kind of pace or formal innovation – but Abecassis is building something here with real substance. She has a documentarian’s ear for good tape and solid editing. The third episode is the strongest yet, expertly bookended by the suspense of whether she’s received approval for the grant to make her film. Grant approval may not sound dramatic, but because she brought me with her, as she desperately refreshed her email, her children playing obliviously in the background, I couldn’t wait to find out the answer. And I can’t wait to see where she goes with this podcast next.

Author Description

Rob McGinley Myers is the host of the podcast Anxious Machine, which features personal stories about technology's impact on everyday lives. He's on Twitter @robmcmyers.