Director Jonathan Olshefski on QUEST
Full Frame is proud to present the following Q+A with director Jonathan Olshefski. QUEST will screen for free on September 21 at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham as part of the Full Frame Road Show Fall Series, presented by Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc. and American Tobacco Campus. The free ticket reservation window opens to First Team on Monday, September 18 at 9 am, followed by Spotlight Members on Wednesday, September 20 at 9 am and the general public on Thursday, September 21 at 9 am. See the Event page for more details.
Filmed over the course of ten years, QUEST is a thoughtful and nuanced observation of the Rainey family—led by father Christopher (“Quest”) and mother Christine (“Ma”). From the start, first-time filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski captures tender images of this family’s love: Ma braids her husband’s and daughter PJ’s hair, joking and laughing; Quest brings PJ to school on the front of his bike each day; and both parents work tirelessly to ensure financial and emotional support for each other. Planted in the middle of a North Philadelphia block, the Rainey house is a sublimely run neighborhood hub. Quest’s creation of a weekly drop-in basement radio show draws a constant flux of characters while illustrating the strong sense of community within this neighborhood. As Quest and Ma raise their children, Olshefski weaves pivotal life experiences with grander issues of poverty, politics, and gun violence. QUEST is an ode to the unwavering love and resilience of a specific family, and a universal reminder that family can give us the strength to keep on going.
Q: How did your relationship with the Rainey family begin? What drew you to filming them and their experiences?
A: In 2006 I was teaching a still photography class to adults in the Rainey family’s North Philadelphia neighborhood. After class one day one of my students, James, came up to me and said, “My brother runs a hip hop studio out of his house a couple of blocks away. Do you want to meet him?” So, we end up walking down the street and James makes the introduction to his brother Christopher Rainey aka Quest. We exchanged business cards and a few weeks later Quest invited me to come to the studio (Everquest Recordings) to take some photos to help promote his artists. During that first photo shoot, I just really connected to Quest and the artists and we decided to keep going.
I was working construction at the time and trying to do art on the side so I really appreciated the DIY/grassroots vibe of the Everquest scene and really wanted to contribute. Then when I learned that Quest also delivered papers in the early morning to help pay the bills, I thought it would be cool to do a photo essay paralleling the working life vs. the creative life. Since he would leave for the job at 2 or 3 am I ended up sleeping over at the house in the studio in order to tail him. Through this I started to get to know the rest of the family and realized that the family was the essence of the story.
After about a year and a half of taking still photos I felt like the medium of still photography wasn’t the proper medium to really reflect the Raineys’s complexity. In 2007, I proposed we make a short documentary. I never made a documentary before, but I just felt like the cinematic medium would better reflect their experience. At the time, we had no idea that it would take ten years to complete, but with documentary there are a lot of twists and turns. There were a couple of different versions of the film that we screened locally, but finally in 2017 we completed the final version of the movie.
The main thing that sustained the film over ten years of production was friendship and connection. The Rainey family considered me as one of their artists and we had a shared vision for what we wanted the film to be and do. It was something we did together.
Q: QUEST bears signature authorship—the detailed, patient footage and the lighting are very unique and handled lovingly and carefully. How did you work to balance these two elements within your shots?
A: I think the core ingredients are relationship and patience. Spending years filming in the same spaces I got a sense of where to position myself to capture the best light. Then, because I spent so much time with them, we were very comfortable with each other and the filming process, so I was able to capture moments that would not have been possible had I not been such a fixture in their lives over a long period of time.
Over time you actually develop a filmmaker/subject symbiosis. Subjects are living their authentic lives, but there is still some awareness of the presence of the filmmaker. My best illustration of this is when filming while walking down the street backwards with Quest, I used to think that I had some kind of sixth sense that allowed me to avoid obstacles. It was years later that Quest told me that he would navigate from side to side on the sidewalk to prevent me from smashing into things. If he ever wanted to get rid of me over the long years of filming he had plenty of opportunities.
Also, editing was a huge aspect of how the story unfolds, in the loving/careful treatment you describe. I have to thank my editor Lindsay Utz and producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon for bringing fresh eyes to the raw material and helping to structure it in such a way that the beauty of the physical spaces, and more importantly, the beauty of the family and their community shines through.
Q: While some documentaries place social issues, like gun violence or addiction, at the forefront of their stories, QUEST seamlessly weaves a number of today’s most pressing concerns into the fabric of the personal narrative. What was your process of working with the footage to maintain a harmony between representing important issues while maintaining a subtle style of storytelling?
A: Rather than forefronting social issues, we chose to always emphasize the personal experience of the subjects—show how they are impacted by social issues, but not defined by them. Through this approach, focusing on universal moments, we hoped to convey an experience of connection. This connection, or sense that “these issues impact people that I can relate to” can act as a challenge to viewers to consider their role in actually addressing these social issues.
North Philadelphia is often depicted as a scary and depressing place which serves to define the community by the obstacles it faces, as opposed to its beauty and the people in it. The outcome of these depictions is further marginalization and alienation. The main issue we wanted to address was the invisibility of a community.
The goal of QUEST was not to explain socioeconomic forces, but to make a human connection. There are other ways to learn this information. I highly recommend reading the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a starting point for someone desiring a deeper understanding of the social issues threaded through the film.
My hope is that QUEST allows all viewers (whether a resident of North Philly or someone living in what seems like a world apart) to connect and see themselves in the personal narrative of the Raineys’s journey. I would then challenge viewers to follow up that sense of connection with a commitment to making real connections and building real relationships in the messiness of the real world. I want each viewer to consider her or his role in addressing the social issues that impact the Raineys and so many families like them.
What drew me to this story was the connection the family had to each other and the community. The subsequent film was the result of the connection that developed between filmmaker and subjects. My hope is that the film will be a catalyst for new connections. Not just empathy, but action: you have an experience and now it is your responsibility to act on it.
We are working on creating an impact and engagement campaign to provide a context around the film to facilitate real action. We are looking forward to bringing, not just the film, but the entire campaign to communities around the country.
About the Director
Jonathan Olshefski is an artist and documentary filmmaker. QUEST is his first feature length documentary. He strives to tell intimate and nuanced stories that honor his subjects’ complexity by employing a production process that emphasizes collaboration, dialogue, and relationship to amplify their voices and reflect their points of view in an artful way.
He has an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University and is currently an Assistant Professor at Rowan University where he teaches in the department of Radio, TV, and Film. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two sons.