I type Kweighbaye Kotee’s username into Skype and press call. It rings for a few moments. I check to make sure my voice recorder is on. I look over my notes: scribblings of her favorite quotes, some dates and figures, writings other people have done about her work with the Bushwick Film Festival. She’s an impressive fixture in the Bushwick arts scene, so I’m anxious to speak with her, fiddling with my hands and my computer’s volume button.
When she finally picks up, any worries I might have had dissipate into the wireless ether. She’s got some serious sunshine in her voice, and it pours through my speakers. Her laugh is warm and she offers it generously as she explains why she’s calling from Berlin. “My boyfriend lives here, so I came for a family reunion,” she starts. “Berlin is such an exciting city. I’m sure that most people who love Bushwick would love it here, too.” We exchange a few Berlin stories and chat about the summer heat before getting into the real meat of our conversation, the preparations for the upcoming Bushwick Film Festival.
The Bushwick Film Festival, which got its start nine years ago in 2007, is an annual film festival that brings a diverse selection of domestic and international indie films and new media projects to the Bushwick community. This year, the festival will have twelve feature film screenings and fifteen short film screenings, along with dozens of panels, events, parties, and workshops.
“Yeah. It’s insane right now, but things are going well. Every year it gets smoother because we’re always learning from our past mistakes, which have been plenty,” she confides with a laugh. “But, it’s shaping up nicely and a really cool thing is that the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office has gotten involved this year, so we had our filmmaker welcoming ceremony there in August. The Borough President is going to speak on behalf of Brooklyn and talk about how film festivals help to revitalize communities.”
Kweighbaye acknowledges that this is a big moment in the BFF’s history: “For the first time, Brooklyn is really taking us seriously as a cultural institution, which is amazing.” When asked if she could have anticipated that when she first started the festival, she admits that she “didn’t have a clear vision of where it was going. But with every step, every year that it grows, you do get this feeling of ‘Oh duh…it makes sense.’ If you put in the time and commitment, clearly it’s going to develop into something meaningful.”
For the first time, Brooklyn is really taking us seriously as a cultural institution…
Our conversation, then, tumbled into one of how filmmakers and artists gain credibility in traditionally underserved communities. “If you want to tell a story about a community that you’re not a part of and you do it in a week…it’s almost impossible to stay true to the actual story. It requires a lot of due diligence and a lot of work to build relationships with the people whose stories you want to share.”
“For example, right now … the festival is shooting a documentary called the Bushwick Diaries and I didn’t even start shooting it until I lived in Bushwick for eight years, so a lot of the people that are in the documentary, I’ve seen and lived with over the course of years. It’s all about making sure that their story is the most important part of the project and not any ulterior motives.”
Kweighbaye’s own story begins in East Orange, New Jersey, the first place she and her family lived after moving from West Africa. “My earliest memories are of living in East Orange and going to Catholic school and spending a lot of really happy times with my four sisters and two brothers. My brothers were really into Michael Jackson, so there was always a lot of performing and singing and dancing going on.”
The driving force in my life, is to help underserved communities and voices find a way towards self-love.
Even now, she speaks of this experience with wonder in her voice. There’s a magic that catches in her storytelling, and it’s easy to imagine the wideness of her eyes at taking it all in for the first time: “I had no idea that there was a place that people went to where they watched things on big screens and like…had all this popcorn and candy and I remember having that feeling of like ‘Oh, there’s more…there’s something else.’”
It’s no surprise then that her work is geared towards sharing that “something else” with others. “Starting the festival, I knew it was something that could have an impact and help to change a community. [I wanted to] provide a platform for women of color and the immigrant population in particular, because I’m also an immigrant.”
“When I realized that a lot of things were possible,” she continues, “I was amazed at the point in my life when I didn’t think they were possible, when I wasn’t even aware of the possibilities.”
Aside from the obvious work the festival does to make it possible for people to experience raw, honest, and self-reflective storytelling, the Bushwick Film Festival engages further with the community with its Youth Film Program and Media Literacy for Local Residents and Businesses Program.
As Kweighbaye so simply puts it near the end of our conversation, “The driving force in my life, is to help underserved communities and voices find a way towards self-love.” A lofty goal, but one that seems to sit squarely and securely on her more than steady shoulders.
Bushwick Film Festival takes place on Sept. 29 through Oct. 2, 2016. Tickets and more info at bushwickfilmfestival.com
This article originally appeared in Bushwick Notebook in October 2015.