(GIF via Vimeo)
When Jonathan Olshefski first met Christopher “Quest” Rainey at his North Philly home back in 2006 with a camera in hand, Rainey was … confused, to say the least.
“We thought he was the media or the police, we didn’t know who he was,” Rainey said.
Rainey’s brother, who was taking a photography class taught by Olshefski, a Pittsburgh native and Temple University alumnus, was the one who wanted to introduce the two. A few weeks later, Rainey invited Olshefski to take some photos of the wannabe hip hop artists he was producing music for in his basement studio.
Little did they both know at the time that Olshefski’s still camera would eventually turn into a video camera that would be used to film Rainey and his family for the next 10 years of their lives in North Philadelphia.
The culmination of that work, “QUEST,” premiered as a documentary earlier this year at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and has gone on to win a whole slew of awards from multiple film festivals — not to mention several glowing reviews from critics, including one who states that the movie “may be one of the most important films about the American experience ever filmed.”
The film got its theatrical release in Philadelphia on Friday night at a sold out showing at Ritz at the Bourse. (You can still check out the film on the big screen, as well as hear from Olshefski, on Wednesday evening.)
So, yes, awards and recognition for the nearly 10 years of work from Olshefski and his team is certainly nice. But for the director, the relationships he fostered with Rainey, his family and community members throughout the filming process were the reasons he stayed so long.
Those relationships helped him tell a story that made it so the narrative wasn’t stripped from the community telling it, which is something Olshefski said can happen too often when tragedy strikes in a neighborhood like North Philly.
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“We wanted to do this together,” Olshefski said. “I didn’t want it to be about me as a filmmaker imposing my view on the family. I wanted to get out of the way and create a film that reflects how they see themselves, how they see their neighborhood.”
Longtime commitment and respect from Olshefski allowed Rainey to trust him when it came to documenting tough situations such as when his daughter, Patricia “PJ” Rainey, was shot in the eye from a stray bullet back in 2013.
"It’s a loss for everybody when we’re disconnected."
“We had so much media around us and nobody was being genuine,” Rainey said. “Jon was already our friend. If PJ had something to look back on, I needed it to be in a way where she could understand it.”
When the story about a neighborhood only focuses on the negatives, Olshefski said it becomes difficult to see that neighborhood for all its great aspects. Instead, he saw grassroots organizing and “a lot of love, people taking care of each other.”
“I think we need to reframe these narratives, not of ‘war zones’ but beautiful and strong people who are having to face obstacles that are really unjust,” he said. “It’s a loss for everybody when we’re disconnected.”
Now that “QUEST” is out in the world, Olshefski and his team aim to bring the film to different neighborhoods through a community engagement campaign, in the hopes of sparking much-needed discussion when it comes to race and class.
Rainey, in the meantime, would like to see more efforts put into educational institutions and programming for kids — more libraries and more focus on teaching history and culture that goes beyond when Barack Obama became president.
And the friendship between Rainey and Olshefski has been cemented from having shared experiences for the past decade. In fact, Olshefski has even earned himself a nickname among the North Philly community — “Peter Parker,” referencing the Spider-Man character who’s always carrying a camera around.