Digi60 showcases filmmaking talent in the National Capital

The recent Digi60 Film festival did not disappoint. The annual Ottawa film festival has been in existence for over 15 years. I attended two of the three days and was inspired by the level of talented filmmakers this city has and the comradery they share.

I attended the short film competition on the Saturday night which comprised of just over 20 short films. I also attended some of the workshops the following Sunday that included a producer’s panel and a ‘Pitch it’ where selected filmmakers were tasked with making a pitch to a group of producers.

Instead of a normal review, I want to focus on three points: The Director submitting a film at Digi60 for the first time, The Rising Star who has experienced success at Digi60, and The Alumni who has not only won at Digi60 but has a feature film in distribution.

The Director

I am quite sure it started as any day for Julian Bate-Vergette. I wonder if he knew that night was going to be special? Julian was one of over 20 filmmakers who submitted work for the Scripted Shorts Competition. The Ottawa Art Gallery’s Alma Duncan Salon hosted the event where a capacity crowd, consisting of filmmakers, friends, family and movie enthusiasts, was treated to a multitude of solid short films. Short films, in many ways, are more challenging than features. You have only a little time to connect with an audience and deliver your story. And, that shortened time does not mean you can compromise on things such as sound, cinematography, let alone story.

I witnessed movies that dealt with issues such as bullying, relationships, grief and there was lighter fare that dealt with talking cats, dating, and even the political relationship between Canada and Cuba.

However, it was ‘Sand and Stone’, the film by Bate-Vergette, that I was most impressed with. It told the story of a son dealing with the death of his alcoholic father, and their relationship. There are so many things that are remarkable about this seven-minute film. How it was shot, the acting by its leads Blakely David and Peter Whittaker, the script. . .  I could go on. There is absolutely nothing about this film that would make you think this was Bate-Vergettes’s first time submitting at Digi60. His film has so many elements that would leave a seasoned director awestruck.

After all the short films were viewed by the audience, the awards were given out. Award after award, there was no mention of ‘Sand and Stone’.

When the Digi60 staff announced the finalists for the top five films ‘Sand and Stone’ was on the list. I wasn’t sure of its chances among the already multi-award winners but Best Film was awarded to ‘Sand and Stone’. With all due respect to the others films, this was so well deserved, the film was brilliant. The roar of applause suggested that I wasn’t alone in my thinking. We had the opportunity to catch up with the winning director.

Julian Bate-Vergette won for Best Film at Ottawa's Digi60 film festival.

OLM: How long did it take to make the film?

Bate-Vergette: It took around one month to make. But years beforehand as I was contemplating telling this story.

OLM: What were the challenges with making the film?

Bate-Vergette: I faced a lot of challenges on an emotional level while making this film. The process made me revisit memories and feelings I had not felt in a while.

OLM: What filmmakers have inspired you?

Bate-Vergette: As a director my inspirations are varied. Dennis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, Mike Flanagan.

OLM: Tell me about the significance of Digi60 for you?

Bate-Vergette: Digi60 to me is the most important local event geared towards film. It's a safe place to showcase emerging talent in the world of independent film.

OLM: What happens now?

Bate-Vergette: I'm sending Sand and Stone to some major festivals to try out a festival run.

I'm currently working with my team on launching a YouTube channel geared towards teaching new or beginner film makers the in's and out's of film making. In the early summer we will also be launching "Technophobia" a science fiction anthology.

The Rising Star

Maissa Houri is no stranger to Digi60. Her film ‘Inara’ was a Digi60 darling several years ago and saw Ms. Houri winning several awards including Best Director and Best Female Filmmaker. Since then she has been busy working on other projects such as completing season one of a web series she wrote, directed and starred in called ‘Dirty Love’.

Ms. Houri was one of five filmmakers selected to deliver a ‘pitch’ to a panel of producers working in the industry. Her attendance at this event spoke to the fact that she is not someone who rests on her laurels, but is someone who wants to improve, someone who wants to take advantage of the resources Digi60 offers. On top of having to develop a pitch, it has to be presented it in front of an audience at the Arts Court theatre. What I really appreciated about this exercise was that the filmmakers were able to develop their skills in a safe environment while still getting helpful feedback. The audience was treated to five unique ideas that were presented with passion and enthusiasm to the panel. Ms. Houri presented last, which I suppose is a blessing and a curse: going last and can wreak havoc on one’s nerves but it is also a blessing because you get to implement the feedback the others have been given into your own presentation.

Filmmaker Maissa Houri (Photo: Christine Tannis)

Ms. Houri took to the podium to introduce herself and her project. It was clear she was pitching an idea that was close and personal. The panels eyes widened as she spoke, they were captivated by the proposed story. When they asked questions, she was ready for them and when they offered feedback she accepted it. This wasn’t a competition between the five filmmakers presenting. Not at all. If anything, it was the development of a bond and it was comradery on the highest of levels. It was an opportunity for people who work in an industry to enhance their skills. To that end, they were all winners.

We caught up with Ms. Houri after the event.

OLM: Why did you decide to do the ‘Pitch it’?

Houri: I really wanted to do Pitch it to learn how to pitch as it is an enormous part of getting funded. Knowing how to pitch is a fundamental part of being a producer or filmmaker. It’s how you sell yourself and your projects. I’m so bad at that so I really wanted to learn how. I was hesitant to apply at first because I didn’t have a story fully fleshed out yet. I just had an idea. I was encouraged by a couple of friends to roll with it and apply.

OLM: How did you find the experience?

I absolutely loved the experience even though it terrified me. It was so great to get hands on coaching the day before we pitched. And the constructive feedback from the panelists was so beneficial for learning how to move forward in tightening our pitches. It is so hard to put your heart out there in front of the world to see/hear and you hope that you get through it without throwing up! But the panelists were all so great and really provided great feedback which was beneficial for me going up last, I was able to re-work my pitch on the fly to include the feedback they provided the other pitchees.

OLM: How has Digi60 impacted you as a filmmaker?

Digi60 has really launched my filmmaking to the next level. I really want to grow into a professional filmmaker at a caliber where I’m competing with the rest of the world and not just as a hobby. Digi60 has provided those resources to focus on that kind of professional development and I rely on them heavily for my growth. The panels, the mentors, the networking, the workshops; it’s all so instrumental in my development and I don’t take it for granted. I’m very grateful for them.

OLM: What’s next for you?

I’m currently collaborating with some creatives on a short film after Christmas, I’m also looking to pursue the series I pitched yesterday, attend more workshops and classes to develop new skills; and just keep working at getting better at my crafts of acting and filmmaking.

The Alumni

I met Alex Lee Williams and Jay Drakulic at last years Digi60 festival. They were there screening their feature film ‘Hellmington’. This was a big deal as making a feature film is no easy task. They are both Digi60 alums and were on hand this year for a panel on directing. They shared their successes and failures to an audience of emerging filmmakers. It’s refreshing to see filmmakers, who are Digi60 alumni, and have achieved success keeping close ties to the organization.

I had the chance to speak with both of them.

Alex Lee Williams and Jay Drakulic are Ottawa filmmakers.

OLM: You are both Digi60 Alum, tell me about the impact Digi60 has had on your filmmaking career?

Lee-Williams: It was a perfect launching pad. It’s a place where you can test out the things you are curious about in the filmmaking world. I didn’t know I wanted to make horror movies. I started out doing comedies. Then I met Jay and then we started combining our narratives and then it became this comedic horror thing. With Digi60 it is the perfect place to test out things you want to take a leap of faith on. There is no reason why you shouldn’t try it out. You don’t get many opportunities to see your short film on the big screen. It’s the perfect place to test out something that you’re curious about and it may miss but you learned that didn’t work and you can ask the audience, in real time, why. That is invaluable and it is so hard to get in the industry.

Drakulic: It’s about creating a safe environment. Here it is about support and helping each other.

OLM: Last night we were treated to the short films and the awards. I came across a few filmmakers who were discouraged as their film didn’t win an award. What do you say to those filmmakers?

Lee-Williams: I think don’t feel ashamed that you feel that discouragement. It’s natural, you’re a human being and awards, the accolades and all those things, I think we are inherently told that they do matter. As we get older we and you do a couple of things you realize what matters and the art itself is very subjective. Give the same group of films to a different set of judges and you’re gong to have different results. Do not be discouraged. And if you do, learn what you like and do not like about the film. Ask for feedback. What matters at the end of the day is the art itself.

Drakulic: You thought about it, you wrote it, you filmed it, you edited it and now it’s playing on the big screen. Your award is that your film is completed. Anything above that is the cherry on top.

OLM: Getting back to you guys, what is happening with Hellmington and distribution.

Drakulic: I just got a message from my mom ‘Going through Rogers pay per view and there is Hellmington!’ It’s on Rogers, Super Channel, The Movie Network (Crave) and you can order it through Amazon.

OLM: Would you say that distribution is still the number one challenge facing Canadian filmmakers?

Lee-Williams: It’s a case by case basis but distribution is definitely a massive hurdle. There are distributors that are popping up now.

Drakulic: There are also so many opportunities to self distribute with all of the digital marketplaces. If you can get onto all of those, iTunes, Amazon, etc you are getting a lot of eyeballs from people who want to pas the time and watch a movie. So you get a lot more traction.

Lee-Williams: A lot of mainstream filmmakers did self-distribution. Oren Pelli, did with Paranormal Activity. Spielberg saw it online and said, ‘I will change the ending and I’m going to put it out again.’ YouTube and Vimeo are the biggest film festivals in the world.

OLM: What are you guys working on now?

Lee-Williams: We have a few different pokers in the fire. We have one self-financed film. We have got one film that we are running through the traditional Canadian landscape through government grants and tax incentives. And another we are trying to grt produced by a single investor.

Drakulic: We met with so me producers who have talked about series, so we are starting to se It would be good to have a series in our back pocket so we are interested I that as well . So we are developing, potentially, a series we can pitch as well.

OLM: Thanks for your time

Ottawa has many talented filmmakers here. Some are just getting their start and some continue to create contest. For many Digi60 is going to be a stop on a very promising career I the industry. Can’t wait for next year.

Scripted Block 1 & Block 2

  • Best Alumni Award: Unfinished Manuscript (by Vincent Valentino)
    • A man spends his life writing his masterpiece.
  • Best Technical Award: Night Drive (by Arjan Atwal & Savannah Greydanus)
    • A mixtape triggers memories of a past romance and a haunting past.
  • Best Screenplay Award: Moonbeam (by Marko Pilic, Patrick Mulligan & Laurent Baelde)
    • On the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, a man struggles to overcome drug dependency and binge eating disorder.
  • Best Acting Award: Moonbeam
  • SAW Video Spotlight Award: The Controlled Demolition of Sophia’s House (by Conrad Osei-Bonsu & Mark Corless)
    • A radio host helps a young girl process her breakup
  • Best Director Award: Night Drive
  • Spirit of the Festival Award: Found Me (by Ludmylla Reis, Hingman Leung & Livia Belcea)
  • TOP 5 Films:
    • Moonbeam
    • A Dream Woven in the Eve (by Amanjot Singh)
    • The Tumour (by Matthew Sandell & Maxim Kuzmenko)
    • Sand & Stone (by Julian Batte-Vergette & Mark Templin)
    • Night Drive
  • Best Film Award: Sand & Stone (by Julian Batte-Vergette & Mark Templin)
    • A man reflects on his damaged relationship with his father after his death.


  • Best Director: Black Apron (by Lindsay Gerro, Connor Ray, Sebastian Giggey, Ian Duchene, Connor England)
    • Following an Ottawa Chef’s journey as he competes to become a pillar of Canadian Cuisine.
  • Best Film: Honourun (by Jorick Callan, Marvin Ren, Jonathan Wegner, Richard Chamoun)
    • Ian Callan, an avid runner runs 158km to honour veterans, military personnel and first responders.
  • Spirit of the Festival: Broke in the 90s (by Dylan Robinson, Mythius Turpin, Steven Armstrong)
    • A half white half native impoverished ascent from a crime riddled environment built to keep people down
  • Best Technical: Honourun

    All photos: Courtesy Digi60