If you’re even a tiny bit involved in Ottawa’s film community, you’ve heard of Emily Ramsay. As the Director of Digi60, Emily is at the helm of the city’s leading filmmakers’ festival. She’s also one third of Obscura Creative, a collective that focuses on local, grassroots storytelling.
Most recently, Emily created Vs.: Women in Combat Sports, a six-part documentary series following 12 amateur female combat sports athletes from the Ottawa-Gatineau region.
Below, Nickie Shobeiry talks with Emily about her work.
As well as being the director of Digi60, you’re also the Producer and Project Manager at Obscura Creative. How did that start?
Obscura started in 2016. Derek Price [Director & Editor], Jeremy Kennedy [Cinematographer] and I we were working together a lot on corporate work and shooting short films. We’ve been working with Jeremy since 2011, mostly on shorts, and then we kept working together on corporate projects, so we thought: why don’t we create a collective that advertises our own company? We like working together, there’s a good synergy between us and we all bring different skills.
Where did the collective’s name come from?
The camera obscura was one of the first “cameras” that was ever created. We really wanted to have ‘creative’ in the title, because we don’t just do film – we do art pieces, corporate work, not-for-profit work. Potential customers can approach us with any type of project.
We really wanted to have ‘creative’ in the title, because we don’t just do film – we do art pieces, corporate work, not-for-profit work.
Who have been some of your favourite clients?
Though we made several short films together, one of our favourites that we did together was Primary Colours, a spoken word poem by Roua Aljied. It got screened at 32 festivals and screenings around the world, including the UN Women Film Festival, Human Rights Film Festival in Dublin, and the Lady Filmmakers Festival in Beverly Hills. We had Best Micro Short at the Social Justice Film Festival in Seattle. It was really cool. Because of the relationships that we created around that time, we decided we wanted to stick to grassroots, local, socially-conscious organizations.
And this year you did Vs.: Women in Combat Sports.
That was the majority of our life for six months! We wanted to stick to topics that are not only interesting to us, but also challenge the status quo. That was one of the reasons why we pitched Vs, because it focused on women fighters locally. We have the UFC and other fight channels that show women’s fights, but you don’t learn why these women fight.
How did it start?
We began producing videos for some local fight promotions and saw there’s not a lot of women doing amateur MMA fights in Ottawa. We met some great women through it, and it developed into a web series idea. We pitched it [to Bell] and they were really, really interested because they’d never have a pitch like that before.
What was the process like?
It had a sit-down interview focus, but at the same time it was fly-on-the-wall, experiencing what the women are going through in their homes or while they’re fighting. I was contacted by tons of different athletes – Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, pro-wrestling, Olympic wrestling, boxing. It was very hard to narrow it down, and we interviewed over 30 women over a month. It ended up coming down to their personal stories because there was no lack of talent.
We included Marija Curran, the Canadian National Champion for light-heavyweight boxing. She was chosen for the Elite Women’s World Championships for Team Canada. We met Julia Nulis, who is a professional wrestler under the name Persephone Vice. I felt so much passion from Julia – about how she was injured, and her journey back to wrestling. We were lucky to catch her first day back in the ring, which was really cool.
A lot of them said that it’s so hard for women to get fights in Ottawa, or in Ontario in general. There’s just not enough opportunities for people to fight because of different weight categories, restrictions on timing, etc.
What were some of the most memorable moments with these women?
Whenever we got to see Roshan Musa fight, because she was on a really long journey coming back into the muay thai ring. She had a lot of setbacks, physically and emotionally. I was cheering for her the whole time, even if we weren’t going to capture her fighting. We ended up getting the opportunity to see her fight the week before our delivery [to Bell], after she had waited four years to get back into the ring. It was very emotional for everyone who was on the crew. Derek, Jeremy and I were so privileged to have been able to tell her story.
What was the biggest challenge in creating this series?
You’re managing the time of 12 different women. You have to figure out how can you fit in a home visit for two fighters on the same day. One day we had three people scheduled to film and it worked out, but it was a lot of juggling. Another challenge is trying to tell stories that are authentic to the women, so they don’t feel misrepresented. It was very important to us to show them as real people and not to make a story that wasn’t embellished or anything. There’s a huge vulnerability there – each woman had to open up to us to tell their stories.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you think exist about combat sports?
The thing we were trying to show was that these women are all very regular women, but are extraordinary for taking on these challenges. It’s not like they just decided, “I want to start punching people in the face.” A lot of them are very, very competitive and are deciding to challenge themselves. And if you’re learning a sport and you’re not competing, you’re not really challenging yourself.
Take Karine Villeneuve: she’s a young mother, and her partner is a Muay Thai fighter as well. She started doing Muay Thai to get confidence in herself. She found she has a good talent for it, and she’s fought MMA, she’s fought Muay Thai, but she still has a young kid who is super cute and she’s a loving mom, a business owner, works in the public service. Karine does it all and she fights.
Also, Tina Takahashi has talked at length about how she never had the chance to compete at the Olympics because women’s Judo was not accepted, but men’s judo was. The Olympics would rather have synchronized swimming than women’s Judo. She was one of the first to ever have a World Championship for Judo from Canada. She’s an amazing athlete, both of her brothers are Olympians, but she never got that chance because she was a woman.
These women deserve to have recognition for what they do. They all work very, very hard to get where they need to be.
And what’s next for you?
I’m working on a web series project right now. We’re probably going to do a short experimental art piece within the next few months, but that will all depend on time and its scheduling. With Vs., we want to get more screening opportunities and hope to announce something soon for that. We’re thinking of doing some follow-ups as well for some of the women featured in the show, because even between finishing filming in July and now, so much has happened. It’d be great to give a little bit of a “where are they now.” Finally, I was selected for a 6-month mentorship with a producer in Toronto through the WIFT-T Connect Mentorship Program, a program that focuses on mentoring the next generation of women filmmakers.
Visit www.obscuracreative.ca to keep up with Emily’s work, and follow her on Twitter @FamishedFem. Aspiring filmmaker? Catch Emily at Digi60, Ottawa’s leading film festival: www.digi60.org. You can find a Vs. update, ‘The Return of Persephone Vice’, here.