In the movie Quest, beginning at the dawn of the Obama presidency, parents Christopher Rainey, and his wife, Christine’a Rainey, raise a family while navigating the poverty and strife that grips their neighborhood.
They nurture a community of artists in their basement home music studio, but even this creative sanctuary can’t always keep them safe.
Epic in scope, Quest is a vivid illumination of race and class in America, and a testament to love, commitment, healing and hope.
This film started off as a chance encounter while I was teaching a photography class in North Philadelphia a few blocks away from the Raineys’ home/music studio. It is a reflection of a relationship. It mirrors the friendship that I have developed with the Rainey family and their community over the last ten years. That friendship is the most precious thing to me—the film and all that comes from it is a bonus.
I came to Philadelphia in 2000 after growing up in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a relatively diverse town and is pretty integrated. I went to elementary school in the ‘80s and ‘90s and old school hip hop was just a part of the culture I was immersed in, even though I liked oldies at the time. Many of my classmates, my bus drivers and the recess ladies wore the gear and sang the songs. I loved so many of them and thus was imprinted positively by that world. When I came to Philly to go to Temple University I fell in love with the city, but recognized that many of its communities we really struggling. I was surprised by how segregated it was with its stark barriers between communities of different races and ethnicities. It was a contrast to my experience in Pittsburgh. I had a deep desire to see healing and connection across these artificial barriers and after graduation was searching for opportunities to make that happen. At the time, I was making experimental films and getting into photography of interesting spaces (abandoned warehouses and buildings etc.), but did not see any correlation between my art and my desire for connection. I had no interest in documentary.
When I first met Chris and Christine’a Rainey (“Quest” and “Ma Quest”), I was working construction and making art on the side. When I learned about Quest’s balancing of the studio and the paper delivery route I saw myself. I could relate to the juggle of the passion project and the day job. We began a photo essay project that would convey that dynamic, which lead to me sleeping in their studio in order to be up and ready to join the paper route at 3am. After spending so much time with the Raineys and their community, I quickly realized that the essential story was not the studio and the paper route, but the family and their community. I also began to realize the limits of still photography and want to find another medium that would better reflect the complexity and points of view of my subjects. This lead to the decision to make my first documentary film.
Over the years I have often been asked, “What right do you have, as a white man, to make a film about a Black community?” I don’t know if I am the one to answer that question. I made the film and I stand by my choices, but I don’t think I have any inherent right and I am very aware of the long history of privileged filmmakers going into communities that are not their own to take stories and craft them for other audiences outside of the community. This can be an incredibly destructive process and marginalize the place and its people, especially when it is a place that was already marginalized.
Stories are incredibly powerful. Who tells them, how they are told, and who they are told to is important.
I will say that I did make this film for North Philadelphia and places like it. My original vision for the film was to use it to promote the Raineys’ studio to share their message of hope and community and to bring the film to different neighborhoods around Philly and maybe even go to other cities with the Raineys and their artists. I could have never dreamed it would show in Sundance when making it, but my hope is that this experience enhances our ability to create a context around the film so that North Philly benefits from it. I believe that a story well told and brought to a place in a compassionate way can build bridges and strengthen community.
Films surely reflect the voice of the director, but my goal as a director is not to just push my own personal feelings, but to reflect a respect and honor for my subjects and accurately reflect and amplify their perspectives and feelings. My only agenda is to provide viewer the opportunity to connect to these really incredible individuals and share the love that I have for them. That is what I want the viewer to take away. These are people whose voices should be heard. – Jonathan Olshefski