Still from 'Have a Nice Life' courtesy Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Oct 19, 2021
The Bushwick Film Festival: Back on the big screen this weekend
The 14th annual Bushwick Film Festival returns with over 100 films, virtual and IRL screenings, and networking events
If you’re gazing east from Hollywood, Bushwick may seem like an unusual locale for a film festival. But locals know better, and will be celebrating the 14th annual Bushwick Film Festival with in-person screenings and a host of virtual events October 20-24.
Prior to the pandemic, the festival drew more than 3,500 attendees and over 1,500 submissions from 60 countries. This year’s festival features nearly 140 independent films from 27 different countries and, for the first time, will include screenplays and non fungible token (NFT) videos.
“I’m excited to be part of a neighborhood film festival,” says Brooklyn-based director Prashanth Kamalakanthan, whose feature film, “Have a Nice Life,” will screen at the festival. “There’s so many festivals in the industry that are really big, feel really impersonal and really commercial. It’s so important, especially as an independent filmmaker, to be part of the community—and not only have collaborators but audiences that you feel connected to.”
Bushwick Film Festival was founded in 2007 by Kweighbaye Kotee (also the festival’s CEO) as a means of sharing her and her partners’ love of film with their neighborhood. Their early festivals received 30-40 submissions, but word quickly spread. Once Kotee realized “the impact the festival can have on not only the filmmakers but also on a community, I got a lot more intentional about how we wanted to continue organizing,” she says.
Today, BFF works with local venues and restaurants to deepen Brooklyn’s economic and artistic development. Its Bushwick Film Institute was established to further the impact of the festival with year-round programming, including a student documentary workshop that paired young filmmakers with industry professionals.
BFF has also grown into its role as a showcase for established filmmakers and those on the cusp, focusing on underrepresented artists.
“The filmmakers that came to the festival 10 years ago are pretty much the leading voices of the film industry at the moment,” Kotee said, adding that “Judas and The Black Messiah” director Shaka King’s films came through the festival. Other festival alums have gone on to create or act in shows on Netflix, HBO and other major platforms.
BFF is also notable for being founded and run by a woman of color. According to a study conducted by the Bushwick Film Festival and Pace University, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. festivals are owned by women of color. Festivals are often gatekeepers for creators, who attend to showcase their work but also make connections, Broadway World noted. “Owners must also be diverse in order for new perspectives and diverse voices to rise.”
BFF 2021 features approximately 50 feature-length films and 90 shorts across documentary and narrative features. The festival offers awards in categories including best feature (narrative and documentary)—a category Kotee expects to be particularly competitive this year—best short and best series. Notes Kotee, “there’s so many flavors of the festival … we tried to make everybody feel very welcome and we don’t focus on one type of community. [There’s] definitely a wide range of stories.”
Among this year’s highlights are “Women is Losers,” an empowering story set in 1960s San Francisco, and “Hudson Falls,” a thriller centered on a small upstate town with many secrets to unearth. First-time documentarian Steve DeBro captures the history of Los Angeles’ Olympic Theatre—a legendary venue host to boxing, wrestling, roller derby and the city’s burgeoning hardcore punk scene—in “18th and Grand.”
“New York has a particular view of L.A.—that it’s sort of soft, and that it’s kind of empty, and that its story has been told. I think there’s actually a lot of commonalities between the two cities,” DeBro says. “[‘18th & Grand’] is a holistic L.A. documentary that’s for the city, but will also help people outside understand it further.”
The festival will also host special events, including a day of industry networking at Circa Brewing Co. in downtown Brooklyn. An online industry conference will feature panelists including Emmy-nominated producer Mynette Louie, the editor of HBO’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” distribution executives and others. Attendees who buy tickets to enter the “metaverse” will be able to interact with NFT art and film—a growing avenue, particularly for artists of color—in an exclusive online space.
BFF moved its festival online during the pandemic and will continue in a hybrid model this year. Covid is still causing complications, however: Kotee pointed to a high staff turnover and difficulty securing venue space in the neighborhood as many of the festival’s regular spaces slowly reopened and questions around the Delta variant lingered.
“We’re not a bigger festival where we can be super agile and be like, ‘okay, we’re gonna put something up in one week,’” she says. “What was missing was the communal viewing experience, which is what makes festivals and movie theaters special.”
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