Tally Abecassis is a Montreal-based documentary filmmaker. She graduated from Concordia University, Montreal, in 1996 with a specialization in Communications Studies. Her documentaries, which have screened at international festivals and on Canadian TV, include Warshaw on the Main, about a group of colourful cashiers working at the landmark Montreal supermarket; Lifelike, on the weird and wonderful world of taxidermy; Small Wonders, which followed 3 small mom-and-pop store-owners for a period of ten years; and Unlikely Treasures. In 2015, she started the podcast First Day Back, about returning to filmmaking after taking a break to have two children. She’s written about the podcast for Huffington Post, and talks to Raising Films about that and more here.
I started the podcast: I realised it was another way to tell stories. It is documentary but it doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure, so I can do it by myself.
Can you tell us a bit about your filmmaking, and the switch to recording a podcast?
I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I was making quirky, slice of life films rather than films focused on social issues. I didn’t set out to take off so much time when I had kids: I couldn’t figure out how to make it work together. I just needed to be with them. Before I knew it, it had been six years.
So I started the podcast: I realised it was another way to tell stories. It is documentary but it doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure, so I can do it by myself. When I left filmmaking, podcasts weren’t mainstream – I’m not sure they’re even mainstream now. But I’d become a consumer of podcasts: I can put them on my iPod and listen to them while I’m cooking – that sounds so domestic! My interest was really hooked by Alex Blumberg’s Start-Up: it wasn’t just two people talking in a room, he made it so human. It was documentary: he really took it places, and made it a story.
Is your approach to your podcast similar or different to making documentaries?
I had been really resistant to doing first person work. The state-sponsored funding here is in different pots, and some funds are only available for certain kinds of projects, described as auteur films. There was a lot of push to make first person work, but I didn’t feel it was justified in my previous films, and I didn’t see where I fit into that.
And look at me now! I’m doing this podcast and it’s all about myself and my family. But the one thing that I want people to feel about the podcast is that I’m not trying to be an expert, I’m just chronicling my story – and I’m trying to make it as much of a story as I can, no just about the issues, but a personal story.
My son said, ‘I want to come and see you make films, I want to see how you do it’. That’s what the podcast has brought to me: respect from my kids.
Do you think you’ll go back to filmmaking?
In fact, the podcast is following a film project I’m trying to get off the ground – but I’m enjoying working without images, I find it very clean, just working with a recorder and a microphone. I’m a little bit in love with the medium! People are very easy to approach: there are not as many hang-ups without video. It’s a different thing to turn a camera on your family than a microphone, it’s a different kind of exposure.
Do your kids like being part of the project?
There are moments when my son will go, ‘The microphone, again?’ but they love it. A lot of my friends listen to it, and when they talk about it, my sons will say ‘I’m in that one!’ I hope I’m giving them a taste of what I do, of creative work – turning an aspect of my life into something.
In my fifth episode, I talk about how my son brought home a note from school about doing work on the theme of ‘Careers’. It asked ‘What does your father do? What does your mother do?’ So I asked him, ‘What do I do?’ and he said, ‘You make films for adults.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s not adult films’. I told him to say that I make movies with real people in them. His teacher talked to me after he presented, and said that he said I make adult films! She said, ‘But I know you and I know that don’t do that’ – and I thought what are you saying, that I can’t do that?
But the important thing was that my son said, ‘I want to come and see you make films, I want to see how you do it’. That’s what the podcast has brought to me: respect from my kids. They see people engaging with my work, and it’s validating.
When I was touring with the films before having kids, I found most filmmakers on the circuit were men because the infrastructure wasn’t there for women to benefit.
Do you know other parents working in the film industry?
TA: The childcare situation in Quebec is fantastic: even freelancers have a one-year maternity leave on a percentage of salary. And it’s a decent place for filmmakers, because there is state-supported financing – but I’ve never heard anyone hear talk about ways of making it easier for parents. When I was touring with the films before having kids, I found most filmmakers on the circuit were men because the infrastructure wasn’t there for women to benefit.
I do know a lot of men who are working in the film business who are parents, and I know a female Director of Photography (DoP) with a young son who makes it work. I was talking to my DoP, who is female, about my concerns about shooting and being away from my family; she said she had heard of women asking their producers to have shorter shoot days and spread them out in a way that’s more family-friendly. But you’d have to get everybody on board, and get the crew to agree to getting the same money spread over more days with less hours in the day. I do know some women who work in a blitz and then take a long gap to develop projects. The dads all seem to have no trouble!
What about culturally? Have the ‘mommy wars’ hit Canada as well? Do you feel like you have to defend your choice to work and/or raise kids?
I find it so confusing. I feel like I was promised I could have everything, that I could do both, and I’m realising that I can’t. For our generation, it feels like parenting takes up so much time and space now – you have to ‘lean in’ as a parent, at home and at school, and if you’re doing that it’s hard to ‘lean in’ to work as well.
I know people who do feel pressure to return to work, but less so when you’re a freelancer, so maybe that’s part of the psychology of it. I feel like while I was off for six years, every single person asked me ‘When are you going back to work?’ But you have this sense that, ‘Hey, what I am doing here is of some value!’
In one episode, I talk about seeing one of my old producers, a woman in her fifties who doesn’t have kids. I was talking to her about my concerns in going back to filmmaking, and she said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we wrote you off a long time ago’, and I thought ‘Who made that decision for me?’ Because I was not obviously on the scene for a few years, people thought I was not coming back. But I didn’t consider myself a stay-at-home mom because it felt temporary, and my choice wasn’t so unusual.
I’ve always been a very empathetic person, but I feel even more empathetic now: I feel that everyone is somebody’s kid.
Will your documentary practice be changed by having a family when you return to it?
The big problem for me is time: I really don’t want to be away from the kids for long. There are definitely projects that are shooting internationally that I’d turn down. It’s a pretty small world though if you’re only going to do subjects that are in Montreal, so I’d work on short-term projects where I travelled.
The film I’m making now is about a social re-integration programme in a very poor neighbourhood in Montreal that works with at-risk young people. They learn carpentry but also social life skills, because a lot of them have never had jobs. During the project, they make a sculpture, and then at the end of the summer, they burn it down, like a mini-Burning Man. I don’t know if I’d have been drawn to the project before I had kids, I’m interested in stories of rebirth now. So I haven’t completely changed my area but maybe it’s got a bit wider.
And has being a parent given you any skills to bring to set?
Somebody said to me the other day, you certainly have a lot of experience dealing with emotional situations! That’s my number one skill right now, being in my bubble while people cry. I feel much more able to retain calm in the face of mental craziness. But I’ve always been a very empathetic person, but I feel even more empathetic now: I feel that everyone is somebody’s kid, and there’s someone who feels about them the way I feel about my kids. It sounds cheesy but it’s great for making documentary.