Emily Ramsay is the Director of Digi60 Filmmakers’ Festival, which creates opportunities for the city’s new and emerging filmmakers. Creatives can network, develop their skills, find mentors, all while fostering a more vibrant filmmaking community right here in Ottawa.
Emily is also a part of Obscura Creative, a collective that focuses on local, grassroots storytelling.
Writer, producer, director, filmmaker, advocate—is there anything she doesn’t do?! Below, Nickie Shobeiry talks to Emily about her life and career.
Apt613: How did Digi60 start?
Emily: It started in 2004, at the point when digital filmmaking was becoming more accessible to people. The founders of Digi60 saw that there was a niche interest in Ottawa in digital. Digi60 is focused on filmmakers and accessibility for making film, which is not always affordable.
Digi60 is focused on filmmakers and accessibility for making film, which is not always affordable.
I got involved in 2010. Back then, there were just over a dozen participants. Now we’re looking at 45 registered filmmakers plus our documentary portion. We usually get about a dozen films out of that every year. In 2012, Digi60 introduced the documentary portion in partnership with Algonquin College. Around the same time they introduced our Spring Festival, which a smaller version of the event.
Now, we’re on the cusp of getting bigger than we’ve ever been, and we really want to provide opportunities for more filmmakers. Our focus is new and emerging, so professional development is a huge part of it. We’re offering workshops and masterclasses, and our awards include prizes that have mentorships attached to them from partners and sponsors. I don’t think there’s any other festival in town that does that.
What do you attribute to Digi60’s success?
It’s expensive to go to film school. Last year our workshops were $10. This year, they’re pay what you can. We’re creating that accessibility, opportunity and network for filmmakers. We see a lot of people come back every year.
How did you get into film?
I was always a writer, both short stories and long form. In 2010, Derek [husband and local filmmaker] wanted to make a film because we had just moved to Ottawa and wanted to meet the community. Digi60 was what popped up for us. We made a film – it was kind of a disaster. Going to the festival and seeing what we were doing compared to what other people were doing, we were like, “We need to step it up a bit.”
We refocused and thought about the technology needed, like having HD cameras and sound equipment, working with other people who are producing short films, and volunteering on sets. In 2011, Derek won the Spirit of the Festival award at Digi60. We’d made our own film, ‘First Date’, and a couple other films with other filmmakers in town.
Around that time time I started writing short films. In 2014 I made ‘The Parking Lot’. I wrote and directed it, and it won the Best Screenplay Award. I was working as a public servant at the time.
In 2015, after my grandmother passed away, I decided to refocus myself. I applied for the Scriptwriting program at Algonquin, and continued writing. During that time, an opportunity to join Digi60 came up, and so I did because I felt I had learned quite a bit and gained the network and the connections to pursue my goals.
And now you’re the Director of Digi60! Did you always know you’d be a filmmaker?
I never really thought so, to be honest. I have a degree in Canadian History, a Library degree and CEGEP Liberal Arts. I was offered a job [in the public sector] right away after school – literally on my graduation day. I didn’t think that I would be a public servant for my whole life, but my grandmother was living with me and I was caring for her at the end of her life. I was in a stressful job, and when my grandma passed, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of support.
I took a few weeks off to re-evaluate what was important to me. It was definitely not having that 9-5 job. At that point, Derek had been working in the film industry for a little while. I had the luck of going to Beverly Hills with one of my short films. We’d had a few screened at other film festivals around the world and were getting good feedback. I just felt like it was the right time for me.
I can pinpoint the exact moment that I wanted it to be a producer. It was 2014 during Digi60 SIFT (Summer Institute of Film and Television) and I took the screenwriting workshop. They brought in Jennifer Podemski, an amazing Indigenous filmmaker. I remember her talking to us about the process of producing and the challenges. It was very impactful for me – she’s a well-recognized actress, producer, director, a writer. She’s making it happen. I was writing down everything Jennifer said and I was like, “I want to be a producer.”
You’ve since worked with Podemski on Canadian TV series, Hard Rock Medical! What was it like taking the plunge into filmmaking full-time?
It was nerve-wracking because I was taking a huge risk. It paid off because of Digi60 itself; I was on the board at the time, and we were planning the festival. It was a job for me to focus on, so I didn’t really give myself the chance to second-guess it. In the lead up to the festival, we’re putting in hundreds of hours to make it happen. We didn’t have a festival coordinator at the time – we didn’t have funding the first year that I was there! We did it all on volunteer time.
How have you seen Digi60 change over the years?
The first year, we weren’t sure that we’d be able to afford workshops and stuff. We had no funding, and really had to have a certain amount of registrations for it to even move forward. The next year we got a partner at The Acting Company to hold the space for us, and we got people to come in and volunteer their time. We have a lot of great workshops again this year, and a lot of people who are leading them are volunteering their time through sponsorship. This year we’re also offering a couple of master classes.
Since 2017 I’ve been working with the Documentary Organization of Canada to apply for funding to have them come to Digi60 to do a documentary masterclass. They’re bringing in a documentary filmmaker to lead a workshop on production and creating content that you can market. We’re also having another masterclass with Gayle Nakamoto, an amazing producer who is leading a workshop on production management and business development.
Ottawa itself is on the cusp of something big. We have the opportunity to build our film studio near the Greenbelt. If that’s going to happen, you need to have trained people for it.
There’s a lot of important lessons to be learnt at Digi60.
This is the stuff that doesn’t get covered in Ottawa. People don’t formally learn about things like taking care of a budget, how to do tax credits, getting insurance, having a lawyer and an accountant look over your plans. There’s a lot of steps you have to follow. There’s some great organizations in Toronto, but they’re expensive. And they’re in Toronto – so not only are you paying $600 for a course, you’re going to pay $600 to stay there for three nights. It’s not as accessible as we need it to be. Ottawa itself is on the cusp of something big. We have the opportunity to build our film studio near the Greenbelt. If that’s going to happen, you need to have trained people for it.
And how do we get there?
We need things like Digi60, because we have to give people the opportunity to meet [people in the industry] and to build the skills and network. If you want to learn how to AD, you need to meet an AD who then wants to train you. It’s the same thing with camera, lighting. You need these people. You need this experience.
Digi60 is happening December 20-23 at the Ottawa Art Gallery Alma Duncan Salon (10 Daly Avenue) at at the Arts Court Theatre. For more information, visit: www.digi60.org/2018-fall-festival. To see the programming, visit: www.digi60.org/programming