Interview: Kweighbaye Kotee (Director Programming – BUSHWICK FILM FESTIVAL)

The Bushwick Film Festival is an Arts Organization with a mission to provide a unique platform for independent filmmakers and artists to present their work to an ever-growing and enthusiastic audience, supporting and empowering the Bushwick community by organizing film screenings and implementing media literacy and film education programs.

On October 3rd – October 6th, patrons and members of the Bushwick community will experience films from Lithuania, India, Trinidad, and local New York filmmakers. In addition to screenings we will have an array of panels, filmmaker Q & A’s, guest speakers, live music events, and our very first New Media Interactive Day.  The 6th Annual Bushwick Film Festival will kick off its four-day festival Thursday, October 3rd at 7pm at Light Space Studios.

We sat down with Director of Programming Kwighbaye Kotee and discussed the festivals evolution, Buswick the neighborhood, the empowerment of filmmaking for the less-than-privileged and much more in an extended conversation.

Find Tickets to the 2013 Bushwick Film Festival – HERE

Bushwick Film Festival

What made you first want to launch the Bushwick Film Festival?
We first started the festival with a group of friends who just recently graduated from NYU.  I had discovered that I could actually contribute to the filmmaking process my last year there while taking a video art class.  Up until that point, I did not particularly like my major as I was in communications, but also an athlete.  I was not at Tisch.  I took video art as an elective and spent days editing a short film and was like “wow!, this is incredible!“.  I have always loved film and grew up spending hours watching films, but that was the first time I realized I could actually make a film myself.

Then I moved to Williamsburg and then Bushwick. Bushwick 7 years ago was so exciting.  All the artists from all the other neighborhoods in the city moved there.  Not to mention the neighborhood already had a great Latin American culture, so this combination made for things to be very exciting. I saw this as an opportunity to start the festival.

I had my first experience at a film festival at Tribeca years before. I was so blown away by the experience of seeing films that were not in theaters yet and people who would fly in from all over the world.  I had met so many people from so many countries sharing in this experience.  By the time I moved to Bushwick I knew I loved films and filmmaking.  I love that art of it.  Seeing what Tribeca was doing I knew I could provide a platform for filmmakers and, at the same time, learn about the industry, get involved and contribute.

Did you have peers in the filmmaking community?
In the original team no one was a “film” person.  My business partner was a graphic designer (and rom-com fan) and I just loved film.  I guess that is how I grew into the programming role.  One of the women involved in the beginning was a painter so she brought a certain creative eye to things.  Someone else was an editor.

It is very important to incorporate a multi-dimensionality to the festival experience, especially as Transmedia becomes more prominent. Having a team of different skill sets working toward a common goal definitely helps with this and can ultimately be what separates you from the crowd.  You would be surprised how many festivals and programmers disregard certain “non-film” aspects of festival planning.

Can you explain the process when first organizing the festivals inaugural edition?
The idea came first (laughs) and the phone calls came after!  I called my business partner of 5 years, my closest NYU girlfriends and my ex-boyfriend; basically everyone who was close to me at that time and called a meeting.  I showed them how exciting Bushwick was as a neighborhood and everything that was happening there.  Everyone was really down with the idea.  To our credit, even though it does not seem we should get credit, I was very naive as to the level of work it would turn out to be.  Instead, we were just adamant about going out and doing it.

We all met at McCarren Park with spray paint, a boombox and some signs, telling everyone to come out to the Bushwick Film Festival.  We all biked around Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick putting up posters and pumping music.  From the beginning the community really supported us.  The first screening we had over 100 people show up and you could just feel everyone discovering new things.  I feel great when I discover new things so that meant a lot.

Over the past 6 years were there any specific instances you can draw from that attributed to the festivals growth?
As an entrepreneur, I realized that business and life mesh.  It was not like I could ever take a break or else the festival would take a break. Everyone who started were volunteers and growing as individuals.  This resulted in people falling off over time;  people moved out of NYC, broke up with significant others and so on.  There was a time where we all had to realize if we were going to continue or not.  It’s funny though, because I never once thought we were going to stop .  I organically met the perfect people to continue the festival with.

An organic approach to entrepreneurship is very important.  In my view, we live in a very inorganic based society where many entities are created using templates rather than passion.  Especially within the creative community, this inorganic approach is not a sustainable model

How about from a more technical aspect, though?  Are there any technical aspects of the festival which have changed over time?
Probably the venues.  I think venues are generally a nightmare to find (and keep) in New York.

How does that process work? Do you book a venue first and then begin accepting submissions?
For some reason the venue has always been the last aspect of the festival that is locked down.  It is not that we do not start by looking for one, but it always seems to be the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place.  Bushwick does not have many theaters so we always have to go for art spaces or galleries.  On top of 3rd Ward (1st year venue) we though of using the Market Hotel.  It used to be a speakeasy and the people who lived there were all artists.  We were so desperate for space that any random gallery that opened we ran to.  The past 3 years, with everything opening in the neighborhood, it has been a little easier, but it still poses a problem every now and then.  I feel like the venues should be more open to endorse us but sometimes it is difficult.  We made a pact this year that our #1 focus for the future is getting our own space.  We also want to focus on opening an Indie Theater in Bushwick.

How is this years venue (Light Space Studio) conducive to the growth of Bushwick Film Festival?
It is a soundstage so it is perfect for us.  It is a nice, open space with white walls.  It already has all the technical infrastructure we would need.  It is actually the place most conducive to hosting actual screenings we have ever had.

What is life at the Bushwick Film Festival like when the physical festival is not going on?
We have several programs launching soon.  I was the education program assistant at Tribeca this past fall.  Prior to that, I never even considered the idea of a festival having an educational program, but when I saw it I thought “of course!”.

While at Tribeca, I built curriculums for students and saw how powerful it was for business.  Bushwick really needs this, Tribeca maybe not so much.  Bushwick is an under deserved community and when I realized I could make the festival in a way that actually helped the community it just made sense.  This will be the first year we will actually run year round.  Usually its more of a 6 month operation where in downtime everyone gets jobs for a while and comes back.  This is the first year we are stepping into it 100% Full Time.

So all the peripheral programs will operate under the Bushwick Film Festival umbrella?
For now, yes.  We are talking with our lawyers since we want to create Bushwick Films, which would separate from the festival.

What is your philosophy behind programming a festival?
I have been thinking about this a lot lately.  I realize the entire festival has been built on chemistry and relationships.  It has been a sacred process.  For example, Lucy Malluy (Dir. ‘Una Noche‘) was part of the festival in its first year.  Of course I followed her over the years and we reconnected when I worked at Tribeca; now she is on our jury.  That relationship was 7 years in the making, so everything in this festival has been in the making over the course of years.

WE WILL RIOT‘s filmmaker I met 2 years ago.  My roommate was friends with him when he came to study at Hunter College from Lithuania.  I remember being in my kitchen discussing his preparation for shooting ‘WE WILL RIOT’. All of a sudden that film was completed and ready to make a festival run.

Basically, any film or event that does not have a benefit for the festival as a whole is not considered.

And, how did you construct the panels this year?
For ‘Building a Better Bushwick‘, specifically, I had a feeling (as a resident) that there is a huge disconnect between the existing communities and the migrating community.  Over the past 7 years I have noticed this gap get wider.  It is hurtful in away.  I go out and see a huge art event, yet most of the natives are not even involved.  There are companies sprouting up all over Bushwick that are not inclusive at all.  The other day I saw an ad for the entrepreneurs of Bushwick, which featured a photo of an array of non-diverse women.  On any given day, if you walk down Wyckoff Ave. you will find a women entrepreneur of diversity who has been doing it for a long time and could (easily) be included.  I do not think this is all on purpose, but I wanted this particular panel for everyone to be aware as how to integrate.

You can say similar things about Bed-Stuy, where I am based.  When it actually comes down to integration, it is subjective, but many do not even bother integrating (or accepting) the existence of a native community.
It is all over, honestly.

How about “The Future of Filmmaking”?  How did this event come about?
Our marketing manager Casey (Johnson) has been really interested in what is going on with an industry in “crisis” or not.  Sure, Steven Speilberg can have trouble finding funding, but Indie filmmakers have ALWAYS had trouble finding funding for their films.

I really question the ultimate sustainability of crowdfunding.  It is fine to fund a few projects here and there, but ultimately that community will just grow to a point everyone is funding (and asking for funding) from the same figures. There is a network created, but how sustainable is that network as it grows beyond its means…

Also, the possibility of filmmaking is more accessible then ever.  There are many things I look at (and sometimes in an overly macro way), but the future of filmmaking also deals with just the possibility of filmmaking for a wider group. There are things we can/need to talk about and getting that information out there into the conversation is vital.  In regards to less than privileged communities, the process of expression can be cathartic, ultimately preventing more anti social behaviors;  not to mention the possibility a child will now pick up a camera instead of E-Trade or something  more socially detrimental of that nature….
…The idea of self-ownership is a big problem too…

Exactly, perhaps the sustainability of crowdfunding could become more of a reality if this idea of  “I did it, therefore it is mine” mentality shifted into a more community based approach where expression is meant for public consumption and the evolution of the human condition shifts from oppressive to inclusive…

Moving forward though, how do you separate Bushwick Film Festival from the vast film festival market of New York City?One of the biggest differentiations we possess is the community we represent, as well as the people involved.  We are all women and we bring a diversity to an industry lacking it.  That has to be our biggest distinction…well, we are all young too!  I am the oldest person on the team, so we have fresh eyes on the industry.

What are some of your favorite aspects of Bushwick as a community?
The people who live there have such amazing stories.  They have rich, oftentimes very dramatic stories, you do not necessarily see on film. The possibility of interacting with people and hearing stories is very interesting to me.  It really diversifies one’s impression on subjective realities. Personally, I wanted to make sure I was not a transient person sucking up resources in the neighborhood.  I come from an immigrant background and a lot of people in the community are immigrants.  I have experienced those same feelings in lacking voice, so I am very passionate about people gaining their own.  My parents came from Liberia after the war and to see what happens to individuals when they do not have a voice is tough.  Watching my parents go from an established place in one community and coming here to lose their voice, therefore, their sense of self is devastating.  Seeing this common story in Bushwick drives me more so than anything else.

I did want to add, in regards to this years festival, the films we have received have been the best yet.  The quality of films submitted blew me away.  We do not have too many slots available so we were able to curate a nice selection of films.  I was really proud to see how great films are being produced with more frequency.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed (on site) by Steve Rickinson

Bushwick Film Festival









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