‘Quest’ Is A Vérité Valentine to Black Love

Years from now, when generations look back and wonder who we were, how we lived and navigated love and loss, the Rainey family will stand as among our best.

Their story is America.

The North Philadelphia family is the beating heart of Quest, a newly released documentary. The film is a profound testament to living resilience, true community and to loving deliberately and with intention.

Filmed with vérité intimacy for over a decade, Quest follows Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a, their daughter and son PJ and William and extended family, in the wins and defeats of their everyday. It arches from the dawn of Obama’s first presidency to the rise of the current administration. And while it bears witness to the family’s personal trajectory as it unfolds before the backdrop and foil of our national story, it remains steadfast in its specificity, and as such, wholly human. Quest shows. It never tells.

Music is the family’s epicenter and they share their homes studio as creative refuge for the neighborhood’s MC’s. Their doors are always open. “Quest” is always at the board. Even when there’s little to no money. Even in crisis.

They’re all heart.

And in the process of wholly being themselves, the Rainey’s disrupt so many of the stereotypes and myths that fog the conversation on race and the urban family in America.

MASS APPEAL sat down with Quest director Jonathan Olshefski and producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon to delve deeper.

There had to be some real and potentially uncomfortable conversations, between you both regarding race and the fact that you are white man telling the story of a black family. How do you guys get to trusting each other enough to have real conversation about those cultural blind spots? How do you do you keep in service to the work so everyone grows?

Jonathan Olshefski: I’ve seen how white filmmakers, or filmmakers of privilege, go into a marginalized community, and then parachute in and parachute out, and tell a story that just re-marginalizes the community. I knew I didn’t wanna do that. I’m committed to this place. I didn’t know I was gonna be committed for ten years, but I wanted to do a project with the community, for the community. And when Sabrina and I first talked, right off the bat, she was challenging, like, “Here are my concerns, here’s my thoughts. There’s power in this material, and if you don’t do it right, it could be incredibly destructive. And if we handle it correctly, it could be incredibly beautiful and healing.” So right off the bat, I was like, man, I really wanna do this right. Sabrina’s challenging, and we have that same shared vision. So, that was the first conversation, and we took it from there and got into the details, as we formally teamed up.

Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: My whole thing was I’m gonna be really straight with him about what my concerns are about it.

One of my main goals, and the reason that I joined the project, was because I was very invested as a black woman and a black filmmaker, to tell this story about this family, about this black family, particularly about a vulnerable black family. We’re talking about communities that are dealing with poverty and all the sort of things that go with that. We tell the story in a way that is really different from the way I feel that these stories are told, which can be often very kind of tragedy-porn-esque. It can be really reductive. When Jon and I talked about how to craft this film, I was really focused on disrupting what people might be already bringing to the story when they come in. Because people have a lot of stereotypical ideas.

And I think, increasingly, a lot of documentary filmmakers and documentary audiences and people of color are questioning and challenging films that are made by white folks about black people, because it tends so often to have that certain kind of lens that feels very reductive, and always seems to be interested in pathology in a kind of way that feels a little anthropological and curious as opposed to really trying to get at the humanity of the people.

And I was like, “Well, I’m gonna bring it to him, and if he is resistant at all, then I’ll know that this is not the project for me.” But Jon was really, really open. I would say that he was just open to doing that work, and he could be challenged.

There’s no way you could have known what lay ahead for the family over the next decade—or for the country politically, culturally. What did you initially think this project was?

JO: The one thing I knew at the very beginning, was that there’s a beautiful family here. In 2006, I was teaching a photo class, and one of my students happened to be Quest’s older brother, James, and after class one day, he was like, “Hey, you know, my brother runs a hip-hop studio out of his house, do you wanna meet him?” We walk over and knock on the door, Quest sees me and his brother, kind of questioning, skeptical, “Who’s this guy? Is he a cop? What’s going on?” But, I was just like, “Hey, I’m a photographer. I’ve been doing photo essays and stuff in the neighborhood.” And I’d already fallen in love with North Philly even before I met them. Quest, his studio, just invited me in to take some pictures of the guys while they were recording, to help to promote them, give them a boost. We just thought it would be a one-off little photo shoot, give them some images and sort of move on with my life. But when I first got there on that first day in 2006, I was really just blown away by just the DIY kind of … this home studio, the passion, the creativity. These guys are living lives that are sometimes rough, and just channeling their feelings, and their thoughts, their experiences into their music. So, I started spending time with them.

In a lot of ways, they just brought me in as another one of their artists, I just happened to be a visual artist, and they were cool with me just doing my thing. And then I heard about the paper route. And so, the first project idea was a photo essay of Quest’s studio, the creative life on one hand, and then the paper route, the working life on the other hand. My day job at the time was working construction, and I was doing art on the side, and so I saw myself in that process, that juggling of the two. So, I would ride my bike over to them in the evening, and I would sleep on a couch in the studio, and Quest would get me up at 3:00 in the morning, and we’d jump out on the paper route. I’d spend the whole day with him and the paper route guys, and we just got to know each other really well.

A year and a half later, it felt like still photo wasn’t the right medium. There’s so many layers. I got to know people’s backstories, and things that were going on. And also there’s the music. Still photo is not gonna convey the music. You need motion to really capture all that.  And, ultimately, it was really about reflecting their voices. I thought that a documentary would be a better medium to do that. The vision was a quiet portrait of a family, knowing the context of how North Philly is represented in the media, typically as, the sensational … the sirens, the police tape. This is just a family that loves each other and is doing some really interesting things. And so for a couple of years, it was that. I was with them during the 2008 election.

Then it was about five years in, that all of a sudden, my quiet portrait of every day routine was disrupted with William’s illness and then the tragedy with PJ. And that really was a game-changer. It was just hard moments, ’cause the family … We had built so much trust at this point, and especially when the thing happened with PJ, that was in 2013. And I thought, “I’ve got the 2008 election, I’ve got the 2012 election.” I was editing the film in 2013, just on my own, still no budget, one man band kind of thing. And then this thing happens with PJ. Quest got in touch with me and I was like, “What can I do to support you guys? What do you need? Anything.” And Quest was like, “Bring your camera. We wanna make sure that PJ knows how strong she is.”

Did that dance between the family as friends and the family as subjects raise boundary or ethical questions while shooting?

JO: They’re collaborators. You know, I think maybe there’s issues journalistically. Because I didn’t have … I wasn’t like, well, I’m gonna take this detached point of view. And so for me, I do feel like we had a shared vision. The Rainey’s wanted to tell their story. They did feel like they wanted to be heard. They felt like they had something special to share and a message. I just wanted to work with them to channel that. But also, they’re very proud of who they are. They’re very confident people in a lot of ways. So even their vulnerability, and even their flaws, they were like, “Well, maybe someone can learn something from that.”

What kept you buoyed in the telling of this story over the ten-year span?

JO: The friendship of the family. You know, there was this … one year, two years, five years in, it was like, “Who knows if this is gonna be a film, is it gonna be a film anyone would wanna watch?” I didn’t know. We didn’t know. I was trying as best I could. I knew it was gonna be beautiful to me and special to me, but it was just … I enjoyed hanging out with them, and they seemed to enjoy the process of spending time together. And so that’s what kept things kind of moving through all those years of just kind of doing it on our own.

SSG: I just felt that the film presented such a unique opportunity to tell this story in a way …I wanted to tell the story, that irrespective of your background, that black folks see this film and feel like they recognize themselves in it. ‘Cause this is not an issue film in the sense where you have talking heads that are talking about certain issues. It’s a narrative about a family. And I think you don’t even have to be black to have this experience where it’s like, you understand yourself in a certain way, but then there’s the way that you are portrayed in the world, and there’s always that kind of disconnect between the two. This is an opportunity to actually, really bridge that.

And I remember looking at the material and thinking a lot about, frankly, the Black Lives Matter movement, and I was thinking everyone’s debating it and talking about it; is it about police brutality, is it not … do they like the police? Do they not like the police? And that’s sort of beside the point of the whole movement, in my view. It was really about justice and dignity for black people. And I was thinking, the Rainey’s, in my view, represented the aspiration of Black Lives Matter. You can make stuff better for Philly. And that’s what Black Lives Matter is about. You can make things better for the Rainey’s community. That’s what Black Lives Matter is about, and that’s a different way to start talking about it than to have talking heads explaining to you what that movement is. This is it lived. This is the story to be told in such a way that we can really amplify what it means when we say Black Lives Matter, and what life are we talking about, what experiences are we talking about. Not the reductive thing you see on the news or whatever.

I don’t think anyone walks away from that film thinking, like, “What’s wrong with that community? What’s wrong with those people?” It’s quite the opposite. I feel like you come to root for them and want for them, just like you want for yourself and for anybody else. And so that, for me, was such an amazing opportunity as a storyteller, and as a black woman storyteller. That kept me going for sure.

What have the Raineys taught you?

JO: I could talk forever about that. I grew up behind the camera. As PJ’s growing up in front of the camera, I’m growing up behind the camera. I was like a 24-year-old kid when we first met. I’m married now, I’ve got a nine-year-old and a four-year-old. I came to the project like, “Oh man, it’s really tough to juggle a job and creative passion.” And then, like two years later, it’s like, “Oh, crap, I’m married and I have a baby. Real responsibility.” And so, seeing Quest navigating family responsibility in addition to the day job, in addition to the studio and the creative passion. And then, on top of that, just the struggle of living in North Philly, in a place where the system has failed. So I think, just in terms of Quest and Ma’s relationship, how they take care of each other and listen to each other. Quest’s gentleness with his kids. Quest’s patience with Price. There’s so many things. Hospitality, kindness. They’re community builders. I’ve been inspired by all of that, and I just want the film to reflect that, and I want the exhibition and the outreach of the film to create community and to transmit that warmth that they’ve shown towards me and others.

I’ve heard it a lot, that people describe the film as a labor of love. Like, here’s this guy, he spent ten years, there was no budget, just doing it on his own time and his own money. And it’s like, I was on the receiving end. It was a labor of love, but on the part of the Rainey’s and the community, and they just showered me with so much love and support through this.

SGG: What I learned from them is how thoughtful and deliberate they are about who they are as a couple. Who they are as parents. This is not like it’s arbitrary. They’re not just winging it. They have a real philosophy about what family looks like, how to create family. And it’s about being really thoughtful … And it’s more than love. It’s like love plus …

JO: Intention and discipline.

SSG: Yeah. And it’s really lovely, and this is something that has nothing to do with class. Economically, it doesn’t cost you anything to be that kind of parent. The Rainey’s are an example to the people who probably have a lot more resources at their disposal, to learn a thing or two about what it means to be a family, to be a parent, to demonstrate love and what that looks like.

It is even said in the film after the murder of a 13-year old in the neighborhood, “Where’s Beyoncé and Rhianna now? We have to be our own role models.” And the Raineys are just that.

SSG: Yes, they’re role models by the way that they live their lives.

JO: We praise them by emulating them. Let’s do what they do, not just say, “Oh, you guys are so strong, we’re gonna worship you, and now we’re gonna get back to our regular lives.” It’s like, no. Follow their lead. Take some action, and do a little bit. Give a little bit of yourself, a little bit of your resources.

SSG: There’s a way in which you are a role model, not so much because you’re an activist, or you’re a teacher or you have a particular role, but it’s just the way you live your day-to-day. And that, at the end of the day, is what we’re looking at in this film. ‘Cause not everybody would just open their door to the entire community. Like, “Okay, we don’t have the kind of resources that we should have here, so just come to my house. I’ll open the door.” And they didn’t do that because they got a grant to do it, or because they’re activists. It just came from their heart. That’s just who they are.

This is not some issue, pontificating film. This is about watching how folks are navigating these issues and being a loving family. And instead of looking at it from the outside-in, we’re approaching it from the inside-out. How do the communities navigate this? And what would it look like if we responded in terms of how they see it and what they need, as opposed to people telling them what they need? And then we can partner with organizations and so on who are already doing the work on the ground, to actually figure out … to really move the needle a little bit on some of these issues using this story.

Quest is currently screening in limited release. Please visit the film’s site for further details. 

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