PJ Rainey, Christopher Quest Rainey and Ma Rainey in "Quest"

Interview: Jonathan Olshefski on the Decade-Long Journey That Continues with “Quest”

A few weeks ago, “Quest” began its theatrical run across the country where it all started — in North Philadelphia. On opening night at the Ritz at the Bourse Theater, the 7 pm screening must’ve seemed like a documentary in itself for director Jonathan Olshefski as all the other people he had come to know over the past ten years in chronicling the lives of Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a and their daughter PJ filed into the theater, people who had been helping the project along from the days when it started as a still photography project charting Quest’s days of running a paper route in order to keep the lights on in his recording studio at night where locals, often from difficult circumstances, work out their frustrations on the mic. The Raineys were there to regale the crowd with stories that might’ve hit the cutting room floor, though some in the audience likely knew them anyway and just wanted to hear them again, and the hometown premiere was the culmination of a week in which the family saw themselves in the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer and all over local radio shows being celebrated for the lives they lead every day. For Olshefski, it was deeply gratifying, yet at the same time, he was even more excited for the days that followed as less people that knew the family directly were coming into the theater, eager to have an experience outside of their own.

“My vision from the very beginning was to create a movie so that a neighbor a block away, some Wall Street executive or some farmer in rural Kentucky would be able to connect to the family because of the focus on universal human moments,” said Olshefski, who didn’t entirely know what he was getting into himself when Quest’s brother James, a student in a photography class that Olshefski was teaching, invited him to come over to Quest’s studio to take a look.

What followed was the making of a film as deceptively simple as the lives the Raineys lead in an environment where violence is sadly all too common and the income from multiple jobs is barely enough to keep a roof over their heads, but the grace of carrying on with dignity and the joy that comes from a family’s love for each other is plentiful if you know where to look. Olshefski demonstrates that knowledge in every shot in “Quest,” as he observes how the Raineys put their own concerns aside to help others, whether it is caring for Christine’a’s grandson while her son William suffers from medical issues or bringing in young men to channel their frustrations into honing their rap skills rather than letting it spill onto the streets. If Quest and Ma are ever frustrated themselves, they rarely let it show, though they have become skilled at turning any negative energy around them into something positive and raising PJ to be just as conscious and sensitive towards the world around her as she comes of age during the Obama administration.

It’s no wonder why Olshefski couldn’t stop spending time with the Raineys, considering how much more time you’ll want to spend with them after seeing “Quest” and as the film premieres tonight on POV on PBS, Olshefski reflected on the first year in ten that he’s had the cameras off the Raineys that has been eventful nonetheless, learning to make a film while on the job and how “Quest” set the path for his future endeavors.

PJ Rainey, Christopher Quest Rainey and Ma Rainey in "Quest"In other interviews, you’ve said when this started out as a photo project, one of the ways you really bonded with Quest was this idea that art can form a community. Did in some ways you feel like you could express yourself through Quest’s story?

Maybe just the goal of wanting to bring people together and we both discovered that art and creativity is the way to [do that]. Even in the studio, [Quest] has these guys that have sometimes lived hard lives, but they’re expressing themselves and there’s a vulnerability in the rawest, roughest forms of expression. Once that vulnerability is out there, there’s an opportunity to connect in a deeper way. Art does that. And I’m really excited to take that instinct that drove Quest to create Everquest Recording and to see even now through the release of the film, we’re seeing people come together, conversations are happening and connections are being made that wouldn’t happen. That energy that I was drawn to at the very beginning, we’re just trying to amplify and do more.

When we premiered the film at Sundance, at our first screening, I felt a little bit melancholy. It was like, “Oh, we’re at the end of the road. I’ve worked for all these years and it’s a hour and 45 minutes.” [I thought], “So this is it?” But then I quickly realized with exhibiting the film, the journey continues, but it’s slightly different than me with a camera, tagging along. We’re still together and building community, going out into the world on this other adventure and into different people’s lives through screenings at theaters or festivals or community screenings. The collaboration has totally continued, so I’m just really excited, really inspired…a little bit tired too. [laughs] It’s been a long year traveling, but we’re running on adrenaline and it’s getting fueled by love. Every screening, something special happens. There’s a special conversation [where] someone’s like, “Man, this moment in the film I’m able to connect to on a deep level because I had a similar experience with one of my loved ones or this really inspires me to try to do something I’ve been wanting to do, but I just haven’t had the courage to do it.” I tried to craft a film that would encourage, but also inspire and challenge viewers. We don’t want passive viewership. You want them to see the film, get excited and want to create their own thing and be a part of something.

Initially, you’ve also said you mainly stuck to the Quest’s paper route and his studio. How did this grow beyond that?

Yeah, [for] the first little bit I was just hanging out in the studio, [which] was in the Raineys’ house, so Ma was there and the kids would pop in and out, and after the first couple weeks, I heard about the paper route, so the idea came up to do the photo essay of working life versus the creative life. For me to go on the paper route at three in the morning [wasn’t entirely feasible] — I didn’t have a car of a vehicle at the time and I lived a couple miles away in another part of the city at the time, so I was like [if] I’m going to wake up at two in the morning, I’m going to be like, “Ehh, do I really want to ride my bike a half-hour across the city and then film?” No way I’m ever going to do that.” So I just asked Quest, “Would you mind if I just slept over and you could just wake me up when you’re ready to go on your route?” He was totally cool with it and I just slept on his couch. But when I’d go over the evening before, it was more like family time, so I got to know the kids and I got to know Quest in more as a father as opposed to this studio/rapper/engineer role and I wasn’t necessarily taking pictures or anything, but I started to see, “Man, there’s something really deep about this family.”

It was after doing the paper route for a little bit, I would take pictures of every day stuff — having breakfast, hanging out with the kids, maybe a little block party that was going on — that I slowly got deeper than the initial premise of the paper route and the studio. After doing that for a year-and-a-half, seeing all of these layers and hearing the backstories of things the family had gone through in the past, [I realized] they’ve been through a lot and I think they have something really valuable to say. Still photo [no longer] felt like the right medium to tell the story, so I thought why don’t we make a little short documentary and I had a 10-minute version in 2007 in December and it didn’t reflect what I’d experienced in that previous year-and-a-half, so [thought] well, let’s film a little bit longer. Let’s get some more [footage of Quest] taking PJ to school and different everyday routine stuff. That just carried us into this ten-year journey because I kept being dissatisfied, not really feeling the cuts were what I had experienced — all the beauty, all the complexity — and then obviously about five years in, the family had a pretty tough period of time that they were going through and that was another shift that got really intense.

From the very beginning, the Raineys and I had a shared common vision that they wanted to tell their story, and as a director, I wanted to get out of the way and just reflect what the experience was like from their vantage point. I knew how North Philly was depicted in the media as this scary or depressing place and it just didn’t ring true with the experience that I had living there. There’s so much beauty and strength [there], [and] it is a community under siege in some ways and [that] the system has failed — [as] Quest says in the film, “I love North Philadelphia and there’s things to love, but there’s definitely a struggle too” — but I don’t think the community should be defined by its obstacles. It should be defined by the people that live there on their own terms, so the goal was to amplify [the Raineys’] voices — that’s what we tried to do with “Quest.”

As you mentioned, you miraculously boil this down to 104 minutes without losing any of that complexity. Was there something that you knew would be your anchor?

That’s where the film team comes in. For eight years, it was just me on my own with the family [with] no budget. Then the film had this transition [to] being funded and having a team around it. Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, my producer and my editor Lindsay Utz, were seasoned professionals [who came on later] and they had made feature films before that have been really successful. By collaborating with them, that’s how I learned to cut a feature. Because I loved the filming process and being with the family, I’d get overwhelmed in the edit process on my own, [thinking] “Man, there’s a lot of footage here. and I’m not really sure how to craft this or structure the story,” and I’d be like, “I’m going to go film some more.” [laughs] And I knew what I wanted.

[In the edit] we measured every scene against how we undermine the destructive narratives that a viewer who maybe comes in not knowing anything, or [with] some ideas about North Philadelphia that are informed by stereotypical mainstream media depictions that just serve to further marginalize the community, [may have]. In terms of the artistry, and this is where Sabrina and Lindsay came in [as well], we were always looking for scenes that did a couple of things at once. There’s a lot of moments that we didn’t put into the film because maybe there was another moment that was similar, but it also did two or three things all at the same time, like [when you see] Quest and PJ walking to school, you get a sense of their relationship, a sense of the neighborhood because they’re moving through space, and a sense what’s going on at the time – oh, they’re talking about politics.

While I was filming, there were a handful of scenes that I knew this is a special moment, like this is definitely going to be in the film, and there’s probably a few [of those that] didn’t, but then there’s different scenes that, going back into the raw footage, we were discovering things that were shot years apart that are now in dialogue with each other. When I was filming with PJ riding the bike to school, I didn’t know that four years later, I was going to be filming again as she walks to school with her dad, and then I didn’t know a year-and-a-half later after [a traumatic incident], a scene of walking with her dad [would take on a different meaning]. What was consistent was this dynamic between father and daughter and their closeness, but once you see that progression, there’s all this change they experience. It was a lot of [discussion] with Lindsay, just trying things. We had a six-hour assembly at one point that we watched through and took notes on and I’m just really proud of the film that came out of it.

PJ Rainey and Christopher Quest Rainey in "Quest"Since you started out as a still photographer, even before the edit, were there changes or adjustments you’d make as you were learning how to make a film over the years?

Yeah, definitely. The first frame of documentary footage I ever shot was with these guys – probably the paper route, and shooting still photos and shooting the kind of material that you’re going to edit for a movie, there’s similarities, for sure, but there’s differences. With still photos, it’s all about light and composition and one thing I had to learn was to not be so precious about composition. When you can get that perfect composition and the light, that’s great, but there were times where I was maybe trying to be too perfect or I messed up capturing the scene in getting the raw materials for different types of shots – the wide shot, the close shot, the action shot, the reaction shot – because I had to do all this in camera with one camera. I had to do all the building blocks for a scene and that’s something that took me a while to figure out.

Lindsay, our editor, enjoyed cutting the later footage much more. [laughs] There were definitely times she was frustrated with the older footage because I didn’t give her as many options to craft a powerful scene, so that’s one thing I had to learn. Also just being patient and just letting moments play out. I would do long days with the family in the early years – I’d go there in the evenings and sleep over and film the next day, but later on, I started to embed for a couple days in a row and when you do that, there’s little moments that happen in day one that are in dialogue with something that happens in day four. By being a constant presence, everyone accepted me and when things would happen, there was no consideration of the camera being there because [the family would think] “The camera’s been here for three days, so we’ve got to live our lives.

Fully embedding for chunks of time yielded some of the intimacy. During the lead-up to the 2012 election, when William was sick, I was actually sleeping on a couch in their bedroom so those shots when [the family was] caring for [William’s son] Isaiah in the middle of the night, we [all] heard the baby crying, so they’d get up to care for Isaiah and I get up and I grab my camera. It was like I was there for everything.

This is a wonky question, but given this covers a decade, was it a challenge to make all the technology you used to capture it simpatico with each other? I remember specifically at Sundance you said the sound mix was difficult.

With the formats, we had an amazing post house called Spinal Frame thhat did a great job with the old footage – some of the early footage was shot on standard definition, [which] is such an outdated aesthetic compared to what we’re used to today – and they were able to clean it up and get rid of some of the noise. The sound mix was difficult because I had never done a sound mix. And [with] color correction, you see the frame and it’s one layer – it’s the layer of the frame. You see the color, [and all you ask is] “Does it look good? How does one shot compare to the shot that came before it and the shot that came after it?” It’s pretty straightforward and pretty magical [because] with the flip of a couple buttons you can really elevate something and take it up a couple more notches. But with the sound mix, there are just so many layers of sound and it’s time-based. Obviously there’s different frames within a shot, but with sound, there’s so many layers – there’s the dialogue, the noise of the room, there’s score and sound effects involved. You just have to pay such close attention or you miss a detail. Like if you zone out for three seconds, there’s a critical sound that you might want to tweak that you might miss, so just having the patience to sit and listen through all of those layers was a new experience to me and really challenging.

What’s the last year been like for you?

It’s been amazing. I was anxious at the beginning, [wondering] how was the public going to receive this story? I felt very protective of [the Raineys] because this film is so intimate and my hope was that people would see the Raineys’ experience and connect with them – not necessarily agree with everything they say or do, but be able to see them in all of their complexities. But especially at Sundance, just two months after Donald Trump was elected, [there’s] that scene we have in the film where [Trump is calling] “the inner cities, these are war zones,” and [it felt] almost like him being elected validates [the idea] these places are just total shitholes and we should just bulldoze the whole thing. That misses out on [the fact] people actually live here and they’re people that care for each other. They have hopes and dreams and have history and I was nervous that putting this story out there, there was maybe backlash towards them.

So far, the vast majority of our experiences have been positive. There’s just nothing like being in a theater and like I’ll go up and there’ll be a little bit of clapping and I’ll say, “Hey, we’ve got some special guests, let’s bring down, Christopher ‘Quest’ Rainey and Ma Rainey and PJ Rainey…” and everyone freaks out. Sundance was incredible and then we went to True/False, [where] there’s like 1500 people standing and cheering for the Raineys [in their largest venue]. It was so amazing. And we’ve done other screenings [where] people afterwards come up and there’s just nothing like it. I just really hope that beyond viewing the film or having feelings of empathy, I hope that people think about neighborhoods like North Philly and to see these neighborhoods as our neighborhoods. As Obama says in the film [about] the aftermath of Sandy Hook, we [should] take that responsibility and connect because when you disconnect from a beautiful place like North Philly, yes, North Philly is missing out, but larger society is missing out too because there’s so much beauty and so much talent there and how do we nurture that talent? How do we create opportunities for these communities to really be everything that they can be. With some support and some love, there’s just so much potential.

Ma Rainey and Christopher Rainey in "Quest"I understand you’re already six years into another project about a family. Did making “Quest” help you figure out who you wanted to be as a filmmaker or what you’d want to pursue?

The funny thing is I’m filming both of these families in parallel for the last six years, so there are some things I learned about filming with the Fiddlers in South Dakota [for my next project] that I brought into “Quest” and vice versa. It’s funny too — [the other project] started in North Philadelphia. I was doing a screening series with this grassroots, amazing community called New Jerusalem Now, which is where I was teaching the photography class that led to me meeting Quest, and a film came to us that dealt with Native American representation, so I wanted to bring somebody who could speak to that. A friend of mine had some contact info for this dance troupe called Native Nations Dance Theater, so I sent an e-mail saying, “Hey, would you be willing to come to this screening? I don’t have any money. It’s just a little grassroots screening series we’re doing just to build bridges in North Philadelphia.” So Delwin Fiddler Jr. and Vaughnda Hilton, his partner at the time, came and we had a great [post-screening] conversation. I thanked them and I thought well, that was really cool and was just going to move on with my life, just like after I met Quest for the first time, we exchanged business cards and it was like, “Alright, cool, maybe I’ll never see this guy again.” Then a couple months later, I get a phone call, and Delwyn’s like, “Jon, when are we going to make our movie?”

I meet people and I don’t think much of it at the time, but I look back and I’m like, “Man, this is this crazy journey that we ended up on and I wasn’t looking for it, but it found me. I’m just really proud really, and really privileged, really grateful to just meet such amazing people who welcomed me into their lives. Both are amazing families and at this point, I want the Fiddlers, who are on their own mission, to experience what the Raineys have — being heard and have the opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. To amplify their creativity is something that I’m really excited to do and now that I’ve gone through the finishing of a film [with] the festival run and the business side, I bring that all into it.

With “Quest,” the material was really powerful, but [as much as] there was potential for it to be really beautiful, there was also the potential for it to be extremely damaging and hurtful to the Rainey family and to the community [if] their stories [aren’t] told in all of their complexity — the communities [can be] beat down by stereotypical depictions that flatten their experience. So you really need to take great care with how you structure stories, and I’m totally committed to taking the same great care with the Fiddlers’ story as I did with “Quest” and it’s just another really humbling opportunity to collaborate with a family. I take it very seriously. There’s a lot of work to do, but I’m excited to continue that journey and we’ll see where that leads.

“Quest” airs on June 18th on PBS as part of POV.

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