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Thomas Cumberbatch, Tegan Smith, Christian Kalambay, and Keith Whittier. Photo courtesy DIGI60.

#DIGI60 Virtual Speaker Series: Black Creators in Ottawa

By Apartment613 on March 2, 2021

By Wafa El-Rayes

The Digi60 Filmmakers’ Festival launched their new virtual speaker series on February 25 with a deep dive into Black creators’ experiences in the Ottawa media industry.

Thomas Cumberbatch, Tegan Smith, Christian Kalambay, and Keith Whittier. Photo courtesy DIGI60.

The live-streamed event was moderated by Keith Whittier, a journalist with Ottawa Life Magazine, and featured panellists: Thomas Cumberbatch, CEO and executive creative director of Godzspeed, Tegan Smith, co-founder of Studio 20/20 and author of Smalltalk: A Periodical in Prose, and filmmaker Christian Kalambay. The aim was to create a space for community-building and solidarity.

“It’s education so that everyone can succeed,” said filmmaker and 2020 CBC Trailblazer Hingman Leung, one of the series’ two organizers. “The conversation is changing, people are paying attention, so now we’re considering how do we help filmmakers, no matter what culture they’re from, to succeed in this changing landscape.”

Leung and Maissa Houri, Digi60’s Director of Womxn’s Industry, organized and are producing the series to spotlight underrepresented professionals in Ottawa, with support from Digi60 and the Digital Arts Resource Centre.

“We’re trying to bring in more mentorship for the emerging filmmakers so that going forward, they will understand how to incorporate diversity in their films,” Houri said. “How to do it properly, respectfully, and remove the stereotypes, the tokenism. We’re trying to educate our filmmakers to do better in regards to the diverse people in Ottawa.”

We’re trying to educate our filmmakers to do better in regards to the diverse people in Ottawa.

Houri said the panel was a great success, describing the conversation as being as engaging as a TED Talk.

“They’re Black creatives, but they’re also simply inspirational people,” Houri said. “They are mentors and teachers, so I think [for] anybody who wants to get into the creative industry and don’t know where to start, I feel like just by listening to them, you’ll feel inspired.”

In their conversation, the panellists addressed various topics that included normalizing diversity, equity and inclusion in Ottawa’s transforming media landscape.

For Smith, mentorship and collaboration are vital to Studio 20/20’s mindset as she and Cumberbatch work to develop a more equitable space in Ottawa that offers opportunities for emerging BIPOC creatives.

“We believe in collaboration, we do our best to support artists, other creative houses, other studios that are similar to us or not similar to us because we believe this is how we grow, this is how we unite, this is how we come together,” Smith said.

“There’s an African proverb I hold dear to my heart, and it’s ‘if you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far as a community, you’ve got to go together.'”

We believe in collaboration, we do our best to support artists, other creative houses, other studios that are similar to us or not similar to us because we believe this is how we grow, this is how we unite, this is how we come together.

Cumberbatch says it is essential to have these conversations on a public platform because it provides all individuals, no matter their identity, a chance to expand their outlooks.

“I don’t think these conversations should necessarily be about teaching other people anything,” Cumberbatch said. “I think it’s just a safe space for people with Black stories to have conversations, and [..] it’s allowing people to listen to different perspectives, different ideas, trials, challenges, and wins. It’s allowing people to broaden their perspectives.”

The power of this discourse, says Kalambay, is its ability to bridge together creatives in the Ottawa community, which he believes has the potential of growing an entertainment culture as rich as those in Vancouver, Toronto, and even Los Angeles.

“My vision for Ottawa is this great community of creators where I can pick up the phone and call Thomas for any couple things, and then he can call me whenever he needs something, and have that happen all over Ottawa without missing a beat,” Kalambay said.

For the panellists, the conversation was an affirmation of the strength of collaboration and the act of gathering to create a closely-knit community across Ottawa’s fractured media industry.

“I think the biggest challenge in our community and our society is although there is a lot of talent, abilities, great work, and great people, there isn’t a lot of equity,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s important for Black creators to have this platform, for the same reason why it’s important for anyone to have this platform—because platforming excellence, greatness, challenges, and questions is how you make the human experience rich.”


Check out #DIGI60 Virtual Speaker Series Episode 1: Black Creators on YouTube and tune in to Episode 2: Womxn Creators on Mar. 8, 2021, at 7pm as DIGI60 continues to highlight underrepresented professionals in Ottawa.