Although he didn’t initially set out to do so, first time documentarian Jonathan Olshefski ended up spending almost a decade with the subjects of his equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching film Quest (which opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema this weekend and expands in the coming weeks). What started off as a simple project about the life of an everyday black family with strong community ties in North Philadelphia quickly snowballed into one of the most socially, politically, and emotionally resonant documentaries of recent memory.
For the better part of a decade, Olshefski (acting as his own cameraman) followed and documented the lives of the Rainey Family. Father Christopher “Quest” Rainey runs a basement recording studio. In addition to producing records for independent hip-hop artists and fulfilling his own musical pursuits, he hosts Freestyle Fridays, where anyone from the neighbourhood who wants to spit a verse can come down to the studio. Christopher’s pre-teen daughter P.J. wants to follow in her father’s musical footsteps. His loving wife and partner of many years, Christine’a, works at a shelter for homeless women and their children. She has an older 21-year-old son, William, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer and recently had a child of his own. Christopher also routinely has to deal with Price, a talented rapper who keeps squandering his talents thanks to addiction issues.
Their issues aren’t exclusive to North Philly, and that’s part of what Olshefski and producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon (who came on board well into the film’s lengthy production process to offer some much needed guidance) want to express with Quest. It’s a film that’s hard to talk about because not too long into the project, the Raineys experienced a great trauma that changed their family forever. From that point on, the challenge wasn’t just for the filmmakers to do right by the family and the neighbourhood they love, but to also show how families can be strengthened in times of unbearable hardship. By the end of Quest, viewers won’t just fall in love with the Rainey family, but hopefully they’ll wish they could be neighbours with them.
We caught up with Olshefski and Gordon on a rainy afternoon last spring, shortly after the film’s Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival to talk about the lengthy production process, amplifying the voice of a community, the message of unity that they hope to get across, and depicting a vision for North Philly that’s different from what locals see on the evening news.
This film covers a remarkably long period of time in the life of the Rainey family. At what point did you guys know how long you were going to be there?
Jonathan Olshefski: It was totally incremental, and the start seems so far away in the rear view mirror now. This actually started off as a photography project in 2006, and after doing that for about a year and a half, it really started to feel like cinema would be a better medium to tell this story and convey the Rainey’s experiences and point of view.
But even then, back in about 2007, we really just thought this was going to be some sort of short documentary. It was always a slow build. I never actively looked at what I was doing, and said, “Okay, I’m going to be filming this for years.” There was a point where I thought that 2012 was going to be a good ending point, and that was the end of Obama’s first election cycle, and I thought that would be a good bookend. Then I was editing in 2013 – just on my own as this no budget movie that might have a life locally in Philadelphia and not much of anywhere outside of that – and that spring was when the crisis with P.J. happened. That really turned everything on its head, and the family invited me back into their lives like I’d never left. They allowed me to be there during this really intense time for them.
Then that point turned into me sticking around for a couple more years. By then, it felt like this was something significant. Other people started coming in and telling me that I really had something here, but that I needed to do it all on a higher level. It became this sort of thing that I could no longer do by myself with no budget. In 2014, Sabrina and our editor, Lindsay Utz, came onto the project. Then it suddenly became a process of trying to find the money to make something grander happen from all of this, and that was a process that took a few years in and of itself.
That’s how this all became a ten year thing. There was never a plan to do it for ten years. If someone came to me and said they wanted to film me for ten years, I know I would be freaked out by that (laughs), so it was always an incremental thing. But that relationship between us got so strong and so deep that I think the length was part of the magic of the film. They always wanted to do this, and every scene in the film is really built on this multi-year relationship that we had built.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: Like John said, he met a filmmaker that told him he should put together a team and make something happen. We got introduced via email, and the funny part was that I had seen Jonathan’s material before, because I had been on the panel for some funding that he had applied for and he ultimately didn’t get. (laughs) When we were introduced, I immediately knew who this guy was, and I agreed to meet with him. I didn’t tell him that he wasn’t getting that funding because it wasn’t actually announced yet, so we just talked about the film and he sent me even more footage than what I had seen as part of that panel.
I knew the reasons why there was a hesitation from the panel and what the challenges were, and I talked to him about that. He’s a first time filmmaker, so there was a lot of skepticism at first from people who didn’t quite get what Jonathan was striving for. “Why is this white guy filming black people in North Philly that are performing hip-hop?” There’s a real discussion to be had around “the white gaze,” especially when it comes to depictions of a black family. There had to be a framing of where this film was coming from. It had to be clear and strong.
It seemed like a really tough sell, and the fact that his project had no end in sight made it even harder to grasp. No one knew what this thing was going to be, and I was honest with him about the material, and what needed to be done and how he needed to proceed. After that, he found out that he wasn’t getting that grant, which I already knew (laughs), but that gave us a huge advantage because it allowed us to reapply, and we knew how to rework our proposal, we knew what the questions about the material were going be, and then – without me on the panel, naturally – we got the money we needed and the materials for any subsequent applications we wanted to put in. Once we hammered things out, we really started to gain some momentum.
Jonathan Olshefski: And by that point, we knew we had a finish line in mind. One of the benefits of not having any funders or distributors and doing something on your own is that you have that freedom to work at your own pace. If there was a distributor on board in 2007, there would have been no way I would have been allowed to work on this film for as long as I did. But this partnership between Sabrina and I gave me a chance to finally put the pieces together beautifully.
About thirty minutes into the movie, we arrive at the moment when you were in the editing room in 2013 and something happens to P.J. How did it feel going back to see the family at that point, and did the events of the spring of 2013 make you want to go back and re-edit what you had already worked on before that point?
Jonathan Olshefski: The goal was to make this quiet portrait of this family and to create something counter to the stereotypical depiction of life in North Philly that gets seen on the evening news. We had plenty of moments that captured what I was going for, but then we had this crisis happen that in many ways was an event that happened in North Philly that the media could have easily been sensationalized. The news swooped in. There was a lot of press.
I could have followed that thread, but I didn’t want the drama of this one moment to define what this family represents and who they are as people. I didn’t want the film and the family to be defined by trauma. I always wanted the film to be about their hopes, dreams, and everyday lives. I think that thanks to the access that I was afforded with them, we still got a lot of those quiet, intimate moments even within this crisis.
At that point and in the immediate aftermath, it wasn’t going to make sense to end it there or suddenly change the approach of the film. We kinda needed another three years to get back to this family living their usual routines. We have to show how the family made it through this crisis, and how they refuse to let it define them. That was a huge challenge. No one should ever have what happened to PJ happen to them, but I think this was also a chance for them to show something good can come out of it. They wanted to show how the community can be strengthened, and how their daughter can grow stronger as a result of it. They wanted to show these things in the hopes that they could stop crises like this from ever happening.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: When it comes to the question of having to re-cut the first part of the film, I mean, yeah, if you were writing a profile on someone and their life and something major happened to them, you would probably have to go back and re-write a good chunk of what you had written, or you would have to find a new approach to what you were doing in the first place. The process definitely changed for us that day, especially since that was a time when the film was still trying to get more funding. One of the challenges when you’re seeking funding for a film like this is that suddenly there’s this really powerful moment that kind of takes over the whole story, and it becomes hard trying to convey to people that this isn’t a film about this one specific moment. It didn’t so much change what Jonathan had been working on as much as it showed that the approach of the film had to adapt to what was happening at the time.
We have so much going on in this film: hip-hop, black people, poverty, street violence, a teenager growing up, a mother looking after her children, a business owner and community figurehead, a family. We wanted the film to talk about all these things, and we wanted to be respectful in terms of how we looked at all of this. We had to know how this was going to be presented to the world, and Jonathan was a first-time filmmaker, so we didn’t really know at first if it was all going to fit. We had to know clearly how we wanted to frame everything that happens in the story of this family, and you never wanted to disrupt the truth of the narrative.
Jonathan Olshefski: It was also an opportunity to look at something that people see every day on the news that has this nameless, faceless, sound-bite driven quality to it. Now we have a chance to put a face and a pulse to it. When this happens in the film, the viewer isn’t removed from such a tragic incident. Here’s a family that you know and fall in love with, and then something like this happens. The evening news cycle completely forgets that these stories are about families, and people become numb to it. There was never a single social issue that we wanted to touch and spotlight directly, but we always wanted people to know first and foremost that this was a story of a family. It became a film about the tenderness and warmth this family has for one another. This could have shattered them, but they stick together, and I think that’s something any viewer will want to connect to.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: You also know that a lot of people will approach a film like this that takes place in North Philly with that image that they have of the neighbourhood from the evening news. You have to give people a new context and a new image. You have to show them something with layers outside of the reductive narrative of the news. You have to be conscious of the context and the space you’re showing the film in. You know – perhaps cynically – that there will be a barrier you have to get through with some people.
If you think about gun violence – and this might be a generalization, but I’m using it to prove a point – and mass shootings, there’s an immediate rallying around the people touched by that. When something happens like that in a place like North Philly, outside of the neighbourhood, those conversations about what happened aren’t taking place as much. Everyone just says “Oh, look at this place. Crime is out of control.” It’s just as unexpected for a black person in an urban environment to get shot as it is for a white person to get shot in a suburban setting. No one walks around constantly thinking they’re going to get shot in their own neighbourhood. Still, being in North Philly, you’re up against that knee-jerk response.
Jonathan Olshefski: And the family experienced that, and I got to see just how something like that unfolds from the perspective of people who lived through it. The media swooped in, did the same piece they always do, and then they left. We actually caught a lot of the interviews the family did with the local press. It wasn’t the worst reporting ever, but what we kept in the film from those interviews were largely the portions that didn’t make it onto television. And those guys have a different job, and of course they don’t have the luxury of working on a story for ten years like I did, but the family still felt like they weren’t being heard. They took this interview where they wanted to say something about their neighbourhood, and they boiled it down to five seconds of a two minute report.
People in North Philly feel isolated and misunderstood, and I wanted to give them a chance to amplify their voices. I wanted to define them in terms of how they all relate to each other, and not what might happen to them based on how the media depicts them. When crisis strikes the neighbourhood will come together. The people of North Philly have been through a lot, and they look out for one another. That gets lost in regular reporting.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: When you talk about amplifying people’s voices and allowing them to get their stores out there, in that scene we’re talking about when the local news came, you can see that the reporter asks what the neighbourhood is even called again. This was the LOCAL news. You should know Philadelphia. They didn’t even know what to call the place they were standing in. That moment to me speaks volumes about the ways this community is ignored, under-served, and under-appreciated. No one thinks about them until the next sensational thing comes along, and then after that, everyone’s gone again. Quest said these really heartfelt things about how the community is neglected and under-served, but none of that made the evening news. That was the ONE time he had a platform to express what his family was going through and what the community experienced, but no one cared about that part of the story.
Jonathan Olshefski: There was always that concern about providing context. The biggest question for me was how to explain this family’s complexity. When I first met them, I knew there was so much more to them than even I could express through the footage I was getting. I was always aware that we were up against a lot, especially knowing how many films use a white gaze, or a male gaze, or a privileged gaze. I never wanted that, and I always wanted to make this film WITH this family and not just ABOUT this family. They took me under their wing like I was another artist in their orbit. I wasn’t a hip-hop artist, but they supported me the way they supported one of their own. I was always aware that I wanted to do the best job I could. I always felt the weight of the responsibility I had been given. I wanted to honour their trust and do whatever I could to craft a powerful film that would give them a voice. I wanted the film to be a reflection of what they do in Quest’s studio and bring it out into the world.
It’s also one of those films where you might not agree with everything they say and do, and that’s okay because we never wanted any sort of PR gloss on this. At the end of the day, I think people will fall in love with them no matter what, but their flaws are what make them human. Love and warmth is just present in who they are and what they want to do for the community. It helped me be patient and to take my time. The production part of the film was amazing because I just loved being around them with a camera and going on these adventures with them. Sure, there were many sad moments where I was crying behind the camera, but we also had a lot of fun over the years. That balance and spectrum of human experience was what I went through with them, and I wanted the film to reflect that. Balancing fun moments with the pain of human life – sometimes at the same time – are aspects of humanity that aren’t depicted very often.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: I know I definitely felt the weight of that responsibility when I started working on the film. Just getting to know the family through all this footage was to love them. You make a film as a filmmaker and people talk to you about it, but the people who are really vulnerable at the end of the day is the family and the people of North Philly. They’re the ones who opened up their lives to us, not the other way around. They open themselves up to unbelievable amounts of judgment because you never know how something is going to be taken when you send it out into the world. People have responded positively and powerfully to the film, but at the end of the day, this is a film that lays bare a family’s relationship for all the world to see, comment on, talk about, and write about. You need to make sure you’re getting everything right as a filmmaker. There are all these circumstances in these people’s lives that have already made navigating them a minefield.
Jonathan Olshefski: Even before we started filming, we knew these were already vulnerable people who have been marginalized, so I absolutely agree with what Sabrina just said.
I find it fascinating that across ten years, we watch this family strengthen, and I think it speaks to the marginalization that you speak of that while the family develops as people, their surroundings all look like they could have been filmed on the same day. Within the margins of this family’s evolving story, you can see how little their neighbourhood actually changes.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: That’s definitely where the sort of subtle social justice aspect of the film comes into play. People like to put films into generalized categories: gun violence film, black lifestyle film, family film, and so on and so on. And this is a verite story. There are no talking heads. No one is explaining anything. And yet, this is such a subtle sort of social justice film because it features people talking about their issues in everyday, realistic settings that they want to change. You can talk about all these issues in the news or on talk shows, but this film shows what the end game of all that talk actually is. How do these people affect their own lives and the decisions they make even when no one with any sort of privilege or power wants to listen or improve upon what’s happening?
Ultimately, that’s what we hope the film depicts. It’s nice to have a film play festivals and for it to get a theatrical release and have people engage with it on an intellectual and emotional level. But what we really want is to bring this film to communities across the country, and work with the people who are on the ground trying to address a lot of the issues that you see within this community. I hope this film can be used as a way for communities to gain traction on any number of issues. I hope this can be used as a way to advance a community’s goals, either internally or on a legislative level.
We talk about this community being marginalized and forgotten, so when you think about it, how many different narratives do you think you can pull from such a place? When all is said and done, this is the American experience. This is life in America. This isn’t just about being marginalized, being black, or saying that certain things happen in certain areas. How many of these stories like this don’t get told in the proper context? It’s important that people in these communities can show their own growth even when others can’t see it.
Quest opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, February 23, 2018. It opens at The Regina Public Library Film Theatre in Regina on March 1 and The Globe in Calgary on March 2. It screens at Vancity in Vancouver on February 26 and at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on March 12.