Jon Olshefski's Fire for QUEST

By Abby Sun
Posted on January 23, 2020
Quest family posing in front of their wall that says "Quest" in graffiti style

Jonathan Olshefski’s ITVS-supported QUEST (Open Call, 2015) follows Christopher “Quest” Rainey, Christine’a “Ma” Rainey, their daughter PJ, and Christine’a’s older son William over almost a decade in North Philadelphia. Deeply intimate, the film begins by focusing on the family’s involvement in their community—Quest’s name comes from his rap studio, Everquest Recordings, which hosts a weekly Freestyle Fridays that was started as a way to help neighborhood teens. Ma Quest works at a women’s shelter. William is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, while PJ, still in elementary school, plays basketball. The couple struggles with paying the bills and supporting their children, but there are many moments of joy in jubilant block parties and the daily rhythms of caring and living. Midway through the film, however, PJ is shot in one eye by a stray bullet.

QUEST is produced by Sabrina Schmidt Gordon and edited by Lindsay Utz. After debuting at Sundance in 2018, Olfshefski’s first feature screened at many film festivals before being broadcast on POV (and later was nominated for two News & Documentary Emmys). 

Its treatment of gun violence, policing, economic hardship, and sexuality are complex and suffused with the real, bolstered by a longform way of working that is still all too rare despite the current documentary industry focus on authorial responsibility to the communities that filmmakers record. I spoke with Olshefski about the dangers of avoiding nuance, what it means to shape a project for a public audience, and how QUEST proposes deep engagement as a form of community-building. 

Let’s talk first about the timeline of QUEST. It’s a longitudinal project and you started out as a photographer, holding a day job in construction. When was there a sense that this was a feature-length documentary film that you would need a creative team to help you shape? You didn’t pitch at IFP, for instance, until 6 or 7 years into shooting.

I don’t know if there ever was a moment where I decided to film for, say, another three years. It was more like I suddenly realized that I had been filming for seven years and needed to finish the film. When PJ was shot, that was a huge change in terms of the story. 

That material was really different from the other material I’d filmed. Prior to that, we'd invested five years already in a portrait of the life of this family, in their daily routines. I didn’t want this crisis moment to undermine that work we did or to frame the Raineys as victims as opposed to everyday people who love their kids and their community. The way the film plays out, there’s a lot of filming in those crisis moments, but I also did a lot of filming in everyday moments to reclaim that routine and not just leave them in the midst of this hectic chapter. 

filmmaker Jon Olshefski working on QUEST

Jon Olshefski

I wanted to get back to the quiet story that all of us wanted to tell from the beginning. In the end, there are moments of fun, happiness, laughter, playfulness, a depth of relationship, and a tenderness. I think that we were true to the nuances of that crisis but also true to the nuance of the larger arc of their lives. 

I wanted to honor the investment the Raineys put into trusting me. I needed more time to figure out my own craft. After the 2012 elections, I felt like I needed to stop filming. I wasn’t applying for grants then because my conception was that the film was from the community for the community, by ourselves. I didn’t have any sense of how to acquire resources. 

I also didn’t have a sense that funders would be interested in this film. I thought that it was going to be a DIY production, post-production, and exhibition. That we were going to get into a van and show it to friends who would have us. I am still very much someone who doesn’t want to put my fate in the hands of gatekeepers, exclusively. But doing it by myself has limitations in terms of my talent and my time. Then, I didn’t even have a sense of what ITVS or other funders were! I thought I was a scrappy artist living in Philly. I was determined to make it good but on my terms.

Speaking of PJ’s shooting, in QUEST, the film, that scene is preceded immediately by Sandy Hook and Obama’s speech. Is that what happened in production?

That Sandy Hook filming was the last I was going to do. We were going to shoot a rap video as an ending. I had decided that I wasn’t going to shoot any more of the essential scenes. I was overwhelmed by editing, forcing myself to sit in front of the computer and figure out the edit. In terms of process, I would look at the footage, realize that I had made so many mistakes, and that I would just need to shoot more footage. So, randomly, that video was going to be the last, which is why Quest is wearing a fur coat—he’s playing a character. And then Sandy Hook unfolded while we were on the shoot.

In early 2013, I have an assembly, and then PJ gets shot. Quest tells me to bring my camera to the hospital. There’s about 6 months in between, but the first shot I got after Sandy Hook was PJ in the hospital.

The way these external events get folded into the story is something that stands out in QUEST. It’s a trace of how much time you spent with the Raineys. The entire film is a balancing act between the mundane and the monumental. For instance, there’s the moment when Quest throws newspapers over his shoulder and two land perfectly on their stoops. And other than Sandy Hook, there’s also the bookends of the Obama and Trump elections. When did this focus come?

I was there for the 2008 election, so you get a slice of that at the time. I was curious what they would think about the election. But looking back at that footage, there were things I wish I had done better. I was trying to frame shots while putting my contact lenses in. I was also starting to work on another longitudinal project, and that’s when I realized that it’s better to be embedded for 7, 10 days than show up here and there. 

There’s a wealth of material I would get—storylines that start on day two, develop on day four, etc. that I was missing out on. So in 2012 I stayed over at their house for the week leading up to the election. The comfort with the camera has to be reestablished.

When Quest asked me to come to the hospital with my camera, they wanted PJ to know how strong she is, and wanted the chance to show what happened so other families didn’t necessarily have to deal with what they’re dealing with. So there was a different sort of mission then. 

After the initial couple of months of recovery—PJ, the family, and the community—there was another level of trust that the Raineys put into me. There was also another level of responsibility on me because of how vulnerable they were that I had the material. It’s all a matter of framing, so I had to honor that trust and their experience.

They put a lot of trust into you and this is visible from the beginning of the film. One of the earliest scenes is of Quest and Ma Quest talking about their struggles. How did you think about maintaining trust and collaboration?

Exactly, I was on that trajectory even before PJ was shot. After she was injured, I edited that material into the assembly. I was already scheduled to show it at a conference because I was doing screenings as part of the process of filming. We’d show cuts of QUEST in the community, like at an art show. Even in year one, the Raineys were seeing themselves on-screen with small audiences, and that gave us the opportunity to talk about what we were doing together. 

In 2013, at that conference, you could feel it in the room, people really responded to the new materials even with my crude editing. I’m not an editor like Lindsay Utz! I was making an observational but more experimental film, I wanted it to be stark. At that rough cut screening, people told me I should submit it to Sundance and that I should apply to ITVS. 

That planted the seed where I realized that I need to make this not just about myself, but it was all beyond my grad school experience. I’d never even been to a film festival! I like the social experience of making films and there was a lot that I didn’t know. 

So I started on this journey of putting together materials. I applied to ITVS three times [before receiving funding]. The first time was probably in 2014. I was outright rejected, and the notes were harsh.

You did the feedback call with ITVS where they read you the reviewers’ comments?

Yeah, it was even critical towards the Raineys too. But I realized that my conception of framing that initial application was about the rap studio, and there are stereotypes that are inherent in telling a story about that world. My way of thinking then was to start off with the harshness, and then reveal the nuances, vulnerabilities and tenderness afterward. I saw it as a progression. When I first started filming, it was about the studio and it was wild and raw. It wasn’t until months later that I met this other family side of Quest, so I was looking to make a film to mirror that experience. 

But with my materials, this open was hard for people, and reviewers thought it was going to be exploitative. I realized that first impressions really matter. People bring baggage into watching these images, and if you reaffirm their stereotypical perspectives or they feel that that’s what you’re doing, it’s not furthering the conversation. 

Now QUEST opens with a wedding!

Exactly, so I inverted that, and that’s due to my collaboration with Sabrina and Lindsay. The wedding is universal and gentle and sweet and tender. That was the first impression we wanted. That was a big change in my process—realizing what audiences need.

I don’t think that filmmakers should only respond to the discourse, but a lot of what’s been written about the film is about how the Raineys are fundamentally good people. They are really civic, community-embedded activists. Their lives are about service and collaboration. Even when you show them having arguments, audiences still walk away with the impression that they’re a loving family. 

It’s not editing magic that’s creating that impression, that’s just who they are. I didn’t want to tell a story that was sanitized. So PJ’s sexuality scene is one where the audience could potentially turn on them a little. But for me to tell the truth, we needed to engage in PJ’s story. This was a moment that happened and is indicative of struggles that they had. It’s also relatable to other families who are having similar conversations. 

We actually got into a lot of LGBT festivals, I think on the strength of that scene. Parents have a hard time sometimes, and this is a part of it. We wanted to tell a story that would help us build community in the real world, and part of that was telling a story that was complicated. Someone who is idolized is not as relatable, and it makes audiences feel suspicious. 

All I know is that my life changed because of this experience, and the Raineys’ lives changed. If it’s just passive entertainment for everyone else, it is what it is. Maybe it’s just better to take a walk in the woods!

You don’t want to martyr the Raineys or imply that only perfect families deserve to be documentary subjects or people audiences should care about.

Their story is their story. I think other people’s stories are important, too. I want to amplify their voices.

That’s a perfect segue because you have another longitudinal project with another family, Without Arrows, mentioned briefly earlier. You’ve also been filming with them for almost 10 years now?

Here I am again, as a white guy, and I’m making a film about the Fiddlers, a Native American family on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe reservation. At least with QUEST, I was living in Philly. This new film started in Philly—I wasn’t looking to make a film somewhere else. My preference is to work locally as much as possible. But this one started with a Philadelphia connection and then I started following this story that takes place mostly in South Dakota, so I need to honor that.  

What attracts you to this way of working over time? How do you balance the ongoing release, touring and screenings of Quest and working on a new project? 

As an example, in 2013 I was coming back to Philly from a shoot with the Fiddlers when my wife called me and told me PJ got shot. I cried the entire flight home. When I landed, I saw messages from Quest. It was tough. I had one kid and my wife was pregnant with a second. I wanted a break from filming but I had to be at the hospital when Quest asked me to be there. The reality is I was in the hospital with Caleb, my 4-year-old, because I didn’t have time to figure out what to do. It was really emotional for me to look at the images from when I first showed up. 

"I think you have to film first, funding and editing come later."

You don’t see my kids behind the scenes [in QUEST] but they were there. The Raineys were at my wedding. My kids know them. So it’s emotional to see PJ laying in a bed when my son is five feet away holding a microphone. Later I got a friend to come to the hospital and watch Caleb for the rest of the day. It can be excruciating, you’re on call—it’s not the same stakes as being a surgeon and saving a life—but I had to do it. This is a film about family.

I think you have to film first, funding and editing come later. By the way, Without Arrows is the working title and I do think it’s problematic, and I want to work with Indigenous collaborators as much as possible. I actually thought I was going to finish that first, but then Quest took over. And then when I was at Sundance for Quest, something happened with the Fiddler family. 

I see them as sister projects, as I take the same approach to both. They’re special families, as they come from communities that are underrepresented and often represented in ways that aren’t helpful, to say the least, and I want to get it right. 

Every film is imprinted with the relationship between filmmaker and subjects, and the film is a labor of love because I was on the receiving end of a lot of love. The Raineys were doing a good job taking care of me even when there were hard times. I feel good that people are responding to the film and honoring that. It’s not that special. Any family in North Philly would be like that, too.

Abby Sun is a freelance programmer and critic.

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