Thursday Spotlight: Meet Kweighbaye Kotee, Founder and CEO of Bushwick Film Festival

At her core, Kweighbaye Kotee is a community builder: she triumphantly brings together artists and audiences, neighborhood long-timers and newbies alike. Her talents coalesce most notably in the Bushwick Film Festival, her passion project that is celebrating its 11th anniversary October 11–14.  Greenpointers caught up with the local curator and filmmaker to discuss the morphing landscape of film, the partnerships she builds, and the side projects that continue to keep her busy.

Greenpointers: Do you live in Brooklyn, and if so where and for how long?
Kweighbaye Kotee: I have lived in Brooklyn for 14 years. Williamsburg for two and now Bushwick for 12.

GP: Can you talk a little about the genesis of the Bushwick Film Festival? And how many participating volunteers and films are there in the coming festival?
KK: I started the Bushwick Film Festival in 2007, while I was still in school at NYU. Initially, I really just wanted to share my love for indie film with other people in the neighborhood and celebrate filmmakers. Later on, I realized my position in the industry (female, immigrant, a woman of color) and wanted to do more. I began to use the festival as a place to bring people of all backgrounds together to connect through film. I also wanted to use our platform to help diversify the industry. This year, we plan to select about 100 films out of the 1,200+ films that submitted to the festival. Typically we have around 50 volunteers and interns who make it all happen.

GP: In its 11 years, how do you think the program has evolved, changed, or grown?
KK: Brooklyn now sees us as a cultural institution in a way that I could never have dreamt of. For the first festival, my friends and I were going around to the coffee shops and putting up posters in the hopes of getting film submissions and selling around 75 tickets. Now, major news outlets are covering us and we receive films from over 40 different countries with 3K attendees. The first two years of the festival, our programming team consisted of myself and my business partner. Now we have approximately 20 screeners and programmers that are industry professionals that watch and thoughtfully review each film, keeping in mind our festival’s mission. In addition, the neighborhood has changed giving us more venues and restaurants to host events which makes the festival week super fun and exciting!

GP: Does the festival itself always occur in the fall, and what kind of venues host the screenings? Do you partner with any local organizations in the process?
KK: For the first few years we were in the summer, however, now we are always either the first or second weekend in October. We partner with venues such as House of Yes, Lot 45, Light Space Studios, Syndicated Movie Theater, The Rookery, Guadalupe Inn, and Montana’s every year to host all of our screenings and events. As we grow, we expand our partnerships with local venues and restaurants. Fortunately, the Bushwick community is very invested in the arts!

GP: I see you also participate in a number of outside artistic groups — MCCG, OPEN, etc. Can you discuss your involvements there?
KK: MCCG (Media, Culture and Communications Group) is a company I founded in 2015 that works with big companies who’d like to better engage with communities to create empowering opportunities in arts, culture, and community programming. Through MCCG we’ve built and managed a number of programs and initiatives like OPEN, that together have provided Brooklyn artists and organizations approximately $400,000 in funding. OPEN stands for ODA’s Public Engagement in Neighborhoods and it’s a nonprofit foundation that funds community green space, media and technology, architecture and design, and public art projects in areas that are lacking resources.

GP: At the film festival’s core seems to be your knack for building community and giving a platform to artists. Is this something that has always driven you and is it the engine behind your BFF efforts?
KK: I’ve always been a part of loving communities and teams. Community is a big part of Liberian culture. I also grew up as an athlete and really value working together towards a common goal. The arts for me is one of the best ways to bring people together and build a community with people that you otherwise would think are different than you. So yes, I would agree that those are two important forces driving the Bushwick Film Festival.

GP: Are you a filmmaker yourself? And how do you think the field has changed in the past decade or so of your involvement in it?
KK: I am a filmmaker. In fact, right now, I’m in the midst of producing a documentary about Bushwick called The Bushwick Diaries. When I started in the industry we were accepting submissions via snail mail and had people submit either DVDs or mini-dvs which limited our reach. Also, platforms like YouTube and Facebook had just launched and people were just beginning to grasp the concept of having a direct connection to audiences outside of the Hollywood or TV systems. In addition, diversity and inclusion, unfortunately, wasn’t in vogue at that time so I’m glad that has changed and now we are all collectively working together to achieve a better balance.

GP: I must ask: do you have a favorite film or filmmaker?
KK: I actually don’t have a favorite film or filmmaker. There are so many films that I love and that have impacted my life. I started a list of my top 100 films and TV shows that I will be sure to share with you when I’m done!

GP: Anything else you’d like to add?
KK: Yes! Please mark your calendars for the 11th Annual Bushwick Film Festival! Dates are October 10–14. And follow my journey and the festivals on social media.

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Indiewire, HowlRound, Eclectica Magazine, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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