Kweighbaye Kotee has a life that could rightly be described as cinematic: Born in Monrovia, Liberia, and only a child when members of her father’s ethnic group began to be persecuted by the government, Kotee’s family was granted political asylum by the United States and quickly uprooted to New Jersey shortly before the First Liberian Civil War broke out.
Kotee was raised in Newark and went to the prestigious Blair Academy on a scholarship before attending New York University while working full-time. It was during her time at NYU that Kotee founded the Bushwick Film Festival (BFF), which is now in its 8th year, and whose 2015 submission deadline falls in just eight more days. We meet Kotee at the Brooklyn Desks coworking space in Bushwick to talk about horror films, Paris, and following your dreams in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Magazine: Did you see any films as a child that stayed with you into adulthood?
Kweighbaye Kotee: Do I have to name one? [laughs] This question is more of a top five. As a child, I watched The Never-Ending Story a lot. I watched The Last Dragon, and Howard the Duck. I also grew up watching a lot of horror films. I used to watch The Twilight Zone or any horror film that came on Channel 11 after eight o’clock. I don’t know if you remember, but there was this film where the ‘666’ symbol was always present—
I don’t think I’ve seen any horror film, ever.
Okay. Yeah. [laughs] Well, I grew up watching a lot of horror films. Also, Moonwalker had a big impact on me. It’s the Michael Jackson film. I don’t watch a lot of horror films now anymore, but I guess that was a way I released a lot of pent up energy as a kid.
How did you first get into independent films?
When I first got exposed to independent film, Spike Lee was a big influence on me as a young teenager. I saw Jungle Fever for the first time when I was probably a little bit too young to watch it. I remember seeing films that felt different than the films that I was used to seeing in the movie theaters. They just made you feel different. So, I liked Spiked Lee; I liked A Clockwork Orange; Michael Haneke—he’s an Austrian director; I Heart Huckabees; Love Actually… I don’t know if Love Actually is an independent film. [laughs] But, as you know, it’s really good. I also liked I Am Curious, which is a Swedish film.
Basically, the films that I really like are the films that, when I watch them, I experience a shift of perception. I feel like, “This is something that I’ve never experienced before in storytelling and it’s really true to life.” I can feel really emotionally connected to these people and these stories.
Most recently, for example, Blue Is the Warmest Color came out like a year or two ago. Watching that, it’s one of those when you see it, you’re just like, “Whoa, this relationship is a relationship that I’ve never seen or this story I’ve never seen told on the screen.” That feeling of really getting crushed in love—that’s so real and so relatable. Seeing that story made it one of the more recent independent films that really impacted me.
Oh, I agree. When she walks out of that gallery at the end…
I’m actually getting the chills just thinking about that moment and moments in films like that—that moment of extreme desperation when you know that the person you really love is not there anymore with you. Independent films have the ability to really clearly reveal those sorts of real human emotions. That’s what I really like about them.
You started the BFF while you were still in school?
Was I still in school? Yes, I was. I should have graduated already, but I took like a year or two off here and there. I was still in school and I was working full time. I was taking a few classes at night. I wasn’t a full-time student at the time, but I still had six credits that I had to finish. Then I started the festival with a really good friend of mine, Laree Ross. She was my business partner at the time.
Did you major in Film Studies?
No, I majored in Media, Culture, and Communications. The two have merged a lot since I graduated, so it worked out for me in the end.
Culture and media?
Yes, culture and media, basically. But it wasn’t until my senior year there that I took a video art class and I edited my first film. That’s when I first realized I could participate in the filmmaking process, and it sort of blew my mind. I fell in love with it. I mean, I grew up watching and loving films, and they affected me so much that being able to participate in the process was when it started for me with film.
What was the first year of the festival like?
There was so much energy behind the first year. This is something that I really wanted to do, and I think Bushwick at that time eight years ago had little bit more freedom. I started the festival and got a group of friends together. At the first screening, so many people showed up. [laughs] We did a lot of planning but, we were like, “What’s going to happen?” And then, like 150 people showed up to the opening night. We were like, “Okay, we have something going on here.” Clearly, this is something that the neighborhood wants and something that we love doing, so why not keep going?
Is the team still the same as the first year?
No, not at all, actually. From the original team, from the first year, I’m the only one still working at the festival. My partner at the time moved to LA and started her own design company, but she still does design work for us. We have some programmers that come back. In fact, we’ve had the same programmers for the past three years. But, we weren’t making money for the first five years so [laughs] it was kind of hard to keep people on board.
You didn’t make any money for the first five years?
The first five years we did not make any money. [laughs] We made enough to host these events, but beyond that we weren’t making any money. Everybody had to get a job. It was cool when we first did it because we were so young and everybody just got out of college. We were sort of done with the corporate world, and we were like, “Let’s do this ourselves.” Luckily, we had the energy to get it off the ground.
Have you seen any trends in the film submissions this year?
I haven’t really seen a trend in terms of stories, but what does happen each year is that there is a trend within the stories of each year, if that makes sense. That’s why we stopped coming up with a theme for each year. We wait to see which films get submitted, and then we look at the films and say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Ten filmmakers are talking about the same thing this year.” A lot is really based on what is happening politically in the news or just in the world. One year, there were a lot of films about climate change. For this upcoming year, I can see we’re going to have a lot films about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
Another trend that I see doesn’t necessarily have to do with the stories, but with the filmmakers. I’m noticing that there have been a lot of first-time filmmakers over the past two or three years who are jumping into the industry or are taking the leap from one career path to the next. A lot of them are older, too. I guess I attribute it to technology being a lot less expensive, but also the rise of entrepreneurship and “taking charge of your life” and moving back to the self-sufficient small business thing that’s happening now. With Vimeo and YouTube, people can put their own work out there.
What is your vision for the future of the festival?
My hopes for the future are to see it go beyond Bushwick. I’m really looking into the possibility of scaling up and going to places that are similar to Bushwick, particularly Paris, because I’ve always wanted to live there [laughs]. One of the reasons I was excited about starting the festival in Bushwick is because Bushwick is a lot like the community that I grew up in, with a lot of families and underprivileged youth who are in a close proximity to a new creative class. There’s lots of culture and people are meshing, which is exciting.
With the festival, one of my goals is to create this space where everybody can come together and communicate. Through story, I hope we can bring people together, have different stories, and relate to the stories that we show, and have events. If we go to Paris, there’s a community I know called Barbès that has different cultural communities and economic backgrounds. I want to go there and use storytelling and filmmaking to bring communities together for dialogue.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to running a festival?
The first few years, the biggest challenge—which is no longer a challenge anymore—was venue spaces. Since I started the festival, tons of restaurants and venues have opened up so now it’s really easy. My big challenge this year, actually, is a new movie theater. I’ve been talking about this for the past year and starting the whole movement behind this: I want to open up a movie theater in Bushwick.
Filmmakers want to see their movie on the screen in the theater with theater seats. I get nostalgic when I see theaters. There was this one theater that just got reopened and revamped—it’s a beautiful theater on the other side of Brooklyn—just looking at that theater, I thought, “Oh, my god. This is beautiful.” I want a theater here. I want to really have filmmakers have that experience. A lot of the independent films don’t make it to the theaters, but they do get their opportunity in festivals around the world.
Where do you imagine the theater would be in Bushwick?
I would love for it to be off the Jefferson stop right here, probably because I really like this area. But the best place would probably be off the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop since the JMZ trains and the L train go there, so it gives access to Bed-Stuy, Ridgewood, the LES. That would be the best place to open it up. But I would like it right here. [laughs]
Right down the street from the office. [laughs]
I would like my movie theater across the street from my apartment. [laughs]
It may be too early to talk about the film submissions for this year…
In terms of submissions, we’ve really increased our films. We have like 20% international films that come in, and the rest—like 50%—are from the tri-state area. The other 30% comes from throughout the US, but mainly LA.
I think what really helped us is that we have digital submissions. We use FilmFreeway. The films that we’ve gotten over the years have been so good. A few of our filmmakers submit every year, so seeing their work from eight years ago to now is just like, “Whoa.” There’s this one filmmaker called Lucy Mulloy, and she did this one film called, “Una Noce,” which was presented by Spike Lee. She submitted her first student film in 2007 when she was at NYU, and then we saw her film like six years later that opened at IFC. We were like, “Whatt! This is crazy!” One thing I want to throw out there is that we really appreciate the filmmakers. And just, like submit to the festival [laughs].
How many films do you have come in each year?
We usually get like 300 on average. My goal for this year is 500. Film festivals like Tribeca get 6,000 submissions, which is a lot. We don’t even have that many screeners on staff. I think 300 is enough films that we can actually watch them all and actually give good feedback. But, like I said, our goal this year is 500, so let’s see what happens.
And how do the films get selected?
There’s three different levels. There’s screeners; there’s programmers; and then there’s jury. The screeners just pretty much screen all of the films. They’re usually film students or Masters in film at colleges throughout the city, so they have film backgrounds and knowledge. They first go through all the films and pull out the ones that they want the programmers to watch. The programmers then watch those films and rate them. Then they decide which films they want to actually screen at the festival. Then the jurors decide which films win. It’s a three-tier process.
How many of the films do you watch personally?
The first five or six years, I watched all the films. Every single one of them, and it was awesome. I would have people over at my apartment to come and engage in the process. We would have screening nights, and it was great. We didn’t get 300 the first year, of course. Once the submissions started increasing, I was like, “Ooh, I can’t watch all the films anymore.” Now I watch all the feature films. I don’t watch any of the short films until they’re actually selected to screen.