In 2005, filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski was teaching photography for a program called New Jerusalem Now in North Philadelphia. One day after class, a student named J.C. Rainey invited him back to his brother’s basement hip-hop studio a few blocks away. J.C. knocked on the door and was met by his brother, Christopher "Quest" Rainey, who was surprised to find him standing next to Olshefski, a 25-year-old white dude.
As Olshefski tells it, Quest was like, “Who you bringing to my house?” But after their initial meeting, it was all love. A few weeks later, Quest got in touch with Olshefski personally, and invited him back to the studio to take photos of his recording artists, images they could use to promote the music coming out of Everquest Recordings.
Blown away by the passion and grassroots individualism of the underground community, Olshefski simply wanted to keep hanging out. He got bit more than he bargained for: in theaters Friday, Quest, Olshefski's debut feature documentary chronicles over a decade in the life of the Rainey family of North Philadelphia.
Previously attracted to the DYI ethos of the punk scene, Olshefski felt like what was happening at Quest’s studio was similar—just for hip-hop. It was a space where people made art together, with what little resources they had, for the love of the music. The only white guy in the studio, he was a hard sell to some of the rappers, who suspected he was a narc or an undercover cop. But Quest, a community figure who delivered newspapers to make ends meet, got a good vibe from the newcomer and kept inviting him back, ultimately forming a friendship that would impact both of their lives.
What began as a photo project became a 110-minute documentary filmed with the intimacy of cinema vérité. VICE caught up with Olshefski by phone to find out what it was like filming for almost ten years, why Obama imagery is so important in the film, and what Quest taught him about how young black males are viewed in society.
VICE: You spent close to a decade making this film, explain the process and what it feels like to finally have it out?
Jonathan Olshefski: It started off as a photography project in 2006, and about a year-and-a-half into that, I just sort of felt like still photos weren’t the proper medium to tell the story. Still photos can’t capture the magic that Quest had when he was delivering papers, and I really wanted to reflect [the Raineys'] voices and points of view. After a year-and-a-half of doing the stills, I was like, “Hey, do you guys want to do like, a short documentary?” I’d never made a documentary before, but everyone was kind of up for it. We filmed for about four months and I had a version of the film, but it just didn’t quite capture everything that I’d experienced—the layers, the nuances.
So how did it become a decade-long project?
I kept pushing. Let’s film more, a little more footage. There was definitely uncertainty for awhile. [It was] like eight years with no funding, no distributor, no broadcast, none of that. I think by not having those external pressures, it allowed me to kind of take my time and be patient with it. Allowing the story to unfold really naturally, but then it was like, How am I going to get it done, and is it ever going to get done? Always, from the very beginning, I knew this family was special.
How did it impact you as an artist?
I felt like the challenge for me [was to] take my craft up a notch, to a level that can really reflect how special this family is. I have a film that really does reflect how incredible and inspirational this family is. I feel very proud of the project, and I’m really excited to be on the other end of it, especially when we’ve been able to tour with the film and have the family be there to participate and meet people after screenings. It’s been really amazing after all these years of uncertainty and not [being] sure if I was ever going to finish the film.
The film is heavy on Obama imagery. How important to the story were the Obama presidency and moving into the Trump era?
It was a big deal in 2008 when Barack Obama started running for president. There was energy, there was excitement, like, Whoa, is this going to happen? He became the Democratic nominee, then he ran, campaigned, and won. I was with [Quest] on Election Day in 2008, and you could feel the energy. It’s like the whole community really responded to that. There were calendars, postcards, the barber was wearing an Obama and Biden T-shirt… You couldn’t miss it. Four years later, we’re still filming this thing, and it’s like, Why don’t I just hang out with you guys during the 2012 election?
I actually slept over at the house a couple of days leading up to that election. Then, four years later, we’re still working on this movie, and who’s running for president? Donald Trump. And again, that made its way into the film. But I think the strong presence of Barack Obama [is felt in] the film because it was there from the community. It was a phenomenon. I think people were sort of encouraged and inspired by it. With Trump, it feels a bit like a slap in the face. It felt like, Hey, maybe we can be heard, we can be understood, maybe we’re changing the narrative here—and then we get smacked down with messages of fear and division.
What did you learn about how black males are seen in our society?
Especially [with] Quest and his relationship with his daughter, there’s this tenderness, this love, this gentleness—and it’s not like I just found this one gentle, nice, tender, black father. There’s hundreds of thousands of them across the country, and all over North Philadelphia. Thousands of men doing right by their kids and their families—but those aren’t the stories that define black men. I think Quest [is] trying to change that narrative and create an authentic depiction that encourages and invites connection and understanding, as opposed to justifying the injustice, harshness, and cruelty. If we can change that narrative, and see people as human beings in all their complexity, with their beauty and their flaws, I think then, as a society, maybe there would be more willpower to address the injustices that places like North Philly endure consistently. The constant injustice in and pillage of [these] communities is systematic.
Quest isn’t quite a talking head-style documentary. Was this something that evolved during the process, or was it planned from the beginning?
I wanted the film to be cinematic. I wanted to use the camera to put the viewer in a situation where life unfolds. It’s definitely not the first 'observational documentary' that’s been made, but to create an observational documentary, it’s about being patient. You need to have trust. You need to have a subject that will allow you into their lives when stuff gets real in order to get those really special moments, and that’s something that I wanted. Because I was there so much, there wasn’t an awareness of the camera or me. It was just like, Hey, Jon’s always here, so we’ve got to just live our lives.
In the moments when it really got intense, the family actually invited me in. When P.J. was in the hospital, they reached out to me like, Jon, this is a major moment in our lives, we want to make something good come out of this. So it was a collaboration in a lot of ways. They put their blood, sweat, and tears into this. They invested ten years of their lives in order to tell this story, and I see it as something we did together. Something I’m really proud of is the relational aspect of it, the collaboration of what we did.
Did it ever seem like things could go wrong?
In the film, you see a couple of scenes where the police do right by the Rainey family. But in one scene [taken with] cell phone footage, all Quest was doing was taking the garbage out. The next thing you know, he’s over the top of a police car getting frisked and questioned. We know very well that those situations can go really wrong really quick, and that’s why Ma pulled out her cell phone and documented it. You see them go through these experiences, as opposed to the evening news where this kind of tragic thing happens and it’s almost like [they're] anonymous victims or perpetrators.
How does the Raineys’ story relate to what’s going on in America today?
With their story, you see the spectrum. You see the beauty, vibrancy, and love of a community that doesn’t often get depicted as beautiful or loving. It gets depicted with bad, scary, and depressing things, and that ends up defining the community. I felt like that was just wrong, so that’s a big part of it: changing that narrative, and [giving] a response to Donald Trump’s kind of viewpoint [where] African-Americans live in the inner city, a war zone worse than places we’re having conflicts.
That’s not how these people see themselves. Yes, they have some obstacles and some threats, but they’re not defined by those threats. You see a family just struggling. You see these social issues that we talk about—gun violence, economic inequality, addiction—you see them through the Raineys trying to cope and deal with them in their lives. The film, in a lot of ways, is about giving them control of the narrative.
Quest opens in New York on Friday.
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