Kweighbaye Kotee, Bushwick Film Festival, Woman Entrepreneur

Kweighbaye Headshot (1)Someone from the Bushwick Film Festival sent an email to WeFestival about Kweighbaye.  It was forwarded to me and I was intrigued.  Starting a film festival is not easy work and I was curious about the festival.  Truthfully starting anything is not easy work.  I reached out to Kweighbaye to talk about her path.

Kweighbaye grew up in Newark but she was born in Liberia.  The civil war pushed her family to leave Liberia when she was 3.  They were given political asylum in the states.  In Liberia her father was a superintendent that connected rural villages.  He was in charge of building roads and making sure that those roads would give access to commerce and in turn create a better economy for the villages.  Her Mom was a secretary.  They struggled for years when they landed in Newark.  Her father was entrepreneurial and started as a truck driver while trying to build businesses that never took off on the side.  He then started to go back and forth to Liberia as an import/exporter bringing in goods from Liberia to sell which has been a success.  Her mother now works in a nursing home.

Kweighbaye was given a scholarship based on her application from the Wight Founation to attend Blair Academy boarding school for free. The Wight Foundation provides grants to kids based on their family income to attend private boarding schools.  She began there are age 14.   Kweighbaye understood the opportunity but it was a serious culture shock showing up at a wealthy lily white boarding school.  She was withdrawn the first few years until she began to adapt to her surroundings.  By the third year she realized what an incredible opportunity she was given.  She dove into the basketball program because it made her experience easier (just to note a few NBA players went to Blaire)  She said she had zero idea how financially disadvantaged she was until showing up at the school.  By 17 she totally understood how she could use everything about background to her advantage.

Kweighbaye went to NYU after graduating high school as a media culture communication major.  She continued to play basketball her freshman year but she realized she was just not as passionate about it as she was in high school.   The coach and the team was a different dynamic.  Instead she got into classes around globalization, broadcasting and studio art.  It was her video art class when she found her passion around film making and media.

During her time at NYU Kweighbaye always worked either part-time or full-time.  She mostly worked as a receptionist in law firms in the evening where very little went on so she could do her homework.  She had come in on a few scholarships including basketball and had also taken out some loans.  She needed to do work/study to pay for school.  She had to take off one year between her junior and senior year for financial reasons.  During those last few years she really got into film.

Before graduating she moved to Williamsburg.  It was there that her world opened up to the artist culture.  She met pioneers in new forms of art and a lot of risk takers.  She attended the Tribeca film festival for the first time that year.  She had zero idea that something like this existed.  Growing up she had never been exposed to this kind of community.  After a year she moved to Bushwick and decided to start a film festival.

Kweighbaye chose Bushwick because the community is full of artists and immigrants.  Those immigrants are part of an under-served community that has zero access to film.  She called up some friends and told them she wanted to start this festival and they said they’d help.  None of them knew what they were doing but they knew that they wanted to create access to film for the community and they did not want to work for someone else.

They had their first screening in 2007 at the end of August.  She boot-strapped the whole thing.  They were sold out the first night.  She knew they were on to something.  In 2009 she graduated so this was part of her college experience.  After about 3 years Kweighbaye realized she was a woman of color from an under-served community and she wanted to really think about how to develop this film festival into something big.  At the beginning they began doing gorilla marketing with posters in the coffee shops in the hipster places.  Now they were going after local schools and the community board.  The impact opportunity was there.  She started to think about films that would shape the festival in a new direction.

Eight years later what began as a slow organic movement has grown into the Bushwick Film Festival with 10-15 films, 20 shorts, 20% are international films, 50% are from NY and the rest from around the country.  They have partnered with sponsors and have been able to set aside $150K for an art fund for kids in the area.

There are a few things on the horizon.  They have developed great relationships with Bushwick council members and they are open to taking old manufacturing spaces that are closed and turn them into a film studio.  They would recruit high school graduates and about 25 young adults to work in production, editing, etc.  Her big dream is also to open up a movie theater in Bushwick.  On top of that Kweighbaye is getting a VISA to take this festival to Paris where they also have a large African population.   She has seen the impact around her and wants to do the same thing in other areas.

For many years Kweighbaye had zero interest in returning to Liberia.  She was 3 when she left so she did not feel as connected with her history.  Even though she grew up in a Liberian community nobody really talked about the past.  About ten years ago she saw people going back.  She began to get more interested.  Things are much different there now, it is safer but then ebola hit.  She is ready to go back and bring a film festival to her country too.

An impressive woman.  Her heritage actually had an underlying impact on her.  Her desire to give back to the community she came from through film is quite entrepreneurial.  The Bushwick Film Festival is around the corner starting Oct 1-4. Buy your tickets now.