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‘Quest’: How a Photo Essay Turned into a Documentary About 8 Years in the Life of a North Philly Family

Director Jonathan Olshefski shares with IndieWire Exclusive Photos and the story of making this intimate portrait of an African American family.

Quest

“Quest”

Jonathan Olshefski

“Quest,” the debut documentary feature debut from director Jonathan Olshefski, is an intimate portrait of an African-American family living in North Philadelphia. The director filmed the Rainey family for nearly eight years, capturing their struggles big and small, in a neighborhood riddled with the same issues of inequality and neglect that plagues so much of America’s urban landscape.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Sundance Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

What’s interesting is Olshefski didn’t set out to make a film; he wasn’t even a filmmaker. He was a photographer drawn to shooting Christopher “Quest” Rainey’s small recording studio and his collective of local hip-hop artists. IndieWire recently asked to the director to tell us about how his relationship with the Rainey family and the project has evolved since he started taking photos of them more than 10 years ago.

Jonathan Olshefski

Jonathan Olshefski

courtesy of the filmmaker

In 2006,I had no interest in documentary film, but I was experimenting with documentary photography. I was teaching a photography class to adults in North Philadelphia in partnership with an amazing organization called New Jerusalem Now. One day after class one of my students, James, said, “My brother runs a music studio out of his house a few blocks away. Do you want to meet?”

Quest in his recording studio

Quest in his recording studio

Jonathan Olshefski

The next thing I know, we are knocking on the door and Christopher Rainey (“Quest”) answers and gives his brother a weird look—something like, “Why are you bringing this white guy with a camera to my house”? I didn’t think much of the interaction, but a few months later Quest invited me to come back to the studio to take some photos of the guys recording to promote their work.

Quest

Delivering the morning paper

Jonathan Olshefski

I soon learned that Quest didn’t make his living from the studio. He paid the bills delivering circulars (coupons/advertisements). I was working construction at the time while doing art on the side. I really felt a connection then and thought that it would be really interesting to do a photo essay that would parallel the working life vs. the creative life. That’s when I began following him on his paper route.

The Rainey family together

The Rainey family together

Jonathan Olshefski

After working on the photo essay for about 18 months, I became convinced that cinema would be a better medium to convey the complexity of the story. Sound and motion are essential aspects of the “Quest” story, but ultimately I think that cinema would be a more effective medium for reflecting the point of view of my subjects and would allow me to amplify their voices. In the fall of 2007,I shot my first frame of documentary footage as I followed Quest on his early morning paper route.

Quest

PJ Rainey

Jonathan Olshefski

The Raineys are community builders. Their house is lively a hub of activity. They are wonderful people and they have overcome significant challenges and sacrificed a lot in order to care for their community. Even in times of crisis, they continue to give back. I would hope that the film would act as an invitation for others to join in as well and participate in the slow, painstaking effort to support communities like North Philadelphia.

I hope that a few years from now, residents of North Philly and places like it will say, “I’m glad ‘Quest’ was made. Good things happened in our community because of it. We feel less isolated and more understood. People have authentically connected to us and have followed up on their commitments.”

“Quest” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

 

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