by Brittany Spanos
It’s been five years since NYU graduates Kweighbaye Kotee and Laree Ross, both 29, took up residency in Bushwick, Brooklyn with their artsy and unique film festival. Since then, the pair have seen some of the works they have championed gain momentum (like the documentary “Beijung Punk,” which gained a distribution deal). With their grassroots ideals and devotion to making the experience as welcoming to both the artists and the audience, Bushwick Film Festival has truly created a unique festival experience.
Five years may not be an incredibly long time, but hopefully these passionate film aficionados will be haunting that ‘hood for years to come with BFF, a celebration of independent film, music, and art that will be breathing life into Brooklyn all weekend long. I had the opportunity to interview these ladies about their current festival and their five-year journey to this very event.
What attracted you both to developing a film festival?
KK: We love art and as we ourselves are artists; I practice various forms of art (music, dance, writing and directing) and Laree is graphic designer, painter and loves animation. The festival helps us put our love into practice. Anyway, at the time I was still an aspiring filmmaker that couldn’t afford to go back to school to study film, and I was really trying to figure out the best way to learn about the industry, meet other filmmakers and help other artists and filmmakers who were also in similar positions to get their work out there. Luckily I had a great group of friends and I approached them with this idea. Laree Ross was very interested, especially in being able to design in a world without corporate limitations. And so at 23, we partnered up and started our first venture. Little did we know that our little artist experiment would grow to be our first company!
How did it get started? What was the process of developing the very first Bushwick Film Festival?
KK: The first year was 2007. It was insane. We really did not know what we were getting ourselves into. There was Me, Laree, Annie Kyle, Liane Stegmaier, Isabel Steuble-Johnson, also NYU grads, that just got together and did it! Our very first meeting was in Annie’s apartment. Laree showed up with all this printing material and Annie’s friend put together our very first logo. I’m sure you’ve heard the term D.I.Y? Well, we were super-extreme D.I.Y. There were many times we were stapling screens, hauling carts full of equipment down the road because we couldn’t afford a truck, getting shut down by the police because of lack of permits, having to run to get a number of licenses last minute because we just didn’t know what we were doing..,projection issues, equipment rental madness, and I don’t even know if I should mention what happened the year we had the festival in an old speak-easy! The list goes on! Only in Bushwick!
KK: We moved in the neighborhood six years ago and it was very clear even at that time that there was something happening here. There was just so much energy, culture and history already here and then top that off with all the new artists moving in waves. It seemed like a Hollywood movie set but it was real! Even much more now today. Everyday in Bushwick really seems like a movie. Also, Bushwick is like constantly being revived. Even after 6 years we still feel like it is new and there is so much more to discover and be discovered. Laree was joking the other day that you can walk by a hidden creepy door and walk in and discover a huge garden party. Also it feels like a self-sustaining community. I’m starting to find that I don’t really need to leave Bushwick anymore. Everything is here.
Do the two of you personally select films to be shown at the festival?
KK: We participate in the selection process. However if Laree or I go to a screening and discover a film that we think is really amazing we reach out to the filmmakers and introduce our festival to them and ask if they would like to submit.
What kinds of films are being shown at this year’s festival?
LR: The three day festival weekend kicks off with the screening of the L Magazine’s Northside DIY Film Competition’s winning short, “Cork’s Cattlebaron,” and winning feature “Lefty Loosey, Rightey Tighty.”
Saturday’s program begins at 4pm and offers a thoughtful and provocative look into the nature and effects of war, while raising questions about the state of our existence. Invisible Children will be presenting their recent documentary film “Rescue” by filmmaker Jedidiah Jenkins, which documents their efforts to bring a permanent end to atrocities being carried out by the rebel group, The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central and East Africa. German filmmaker Raff Schmerberg’s documentary “PROBLEMA” will be our feature film. A cinematic interpretation of the world’s largest round table gathering, “PROBLEMA” is a visually imaginative, thought-provoking invitation to a world of global dilemmas.
Also screening, will be “NAUFRAGE” by Clorinde Durande as a part of a collection of short films titled “Unrest” presented by Imagepassages a contemporary visual arts organization based in France.
Following a panel discussion, we have a great short film program featuring Lithuanian director Romas Zabraouskus’ “Porno Melodrama.” Created as a reaction to the state’s homophobia in Lithuania, “Porno Melodrama” tells an original story about the dangers of love. The night will close with a short that explores the meaning of graffiti, a music video about a man haunted by his past, and an experimental music film by Mike McSweeney. “Sound Underground” is a joyous film that illustrates why people play music
What makes BFF different from Tribeca or any other NY based film festival?
KK: The film festival is small, simple, and concentrated over one weekend in one venue. It keeps the attention on the films and the filmmakers. Laree and I are very single-minded individuals and we’ve found it to be pretty amazing what can be accomplished when you focus your attention on only the essence of things. You are more likely to get better results focusing on one thing at a time. So we apply our way of being to the film festival. We feel that the audience, filmmakers and community get so much more out of the weekend this way. I think good films and filmmakers can really get lost in the mix. So we keep it simple. We also know all of our filmmakers, we have watched every single film that we have screened over the course of 5 years and we try to highlight them as much as we can on our website and in our newsletters. We wouldn’t be able to serve the filmmakers this way if we didn’t keep it simple.
What attracts you to film? Are either of you filmmakers?
LR: Film in our opinion, is the highest art form of our time as it mixes all mediums (music, graphic design, costume design, filmmaking, special effects, story telling, acting, etc.). I am a filmmaker myself, and I am particularly attracted to how film can be used to raise important questions and idea, shed light on important historical events and really affect change in the community, the world and in the individual. Also, on a more creative level, there is this concept that in life there are no second chances; however in films a director is given a second chance to change the story.
The festival features art and music as well. What about that combination of the mediums inspires both of you to highlight the interconnectivity of the three?
LR: Well, that’s just it – they are all connected! Film encompasses all mediums and that is one reason film is so beautiful. As we are both avid lovers of art, we found that we can experience all of our passions through film. So we combined all three with the film festival. This year we decided to go deconstructivist and explore art and music in its own right as well as film and we hosted an art show and a music fundraising event. When you collaborate with all forms of art, there are endless possibilities.
How do the art and music elements fall into the event as a whole?
LR: We have an art show at the LOOM Gallery that is up until the end of the festival. The gallery is very close to the venue, so people can meander their first or afterward. And then we will be having music shows each night after the festival hosted by Paper Box.
KK: I am undecided. There are just tooooooo many good ones! But at this very moment “The Last Dragon” just came to mind! Not my all-time fav but definitely on the list.
LR: I am a lover of all things romantic, so of course there is “Before Sunrise” by Linklater. I also love “Pretty Woman.” I can watch this over and over. My other favorite genre is the international political dramas such as “The Constant Gardener” and “Blood Diamond.” These films get me so motivated to take action and try to make a difference in the world any way that I can.
Brittany Spanos is a staff writer. Email her at email@example.com.