Jonathan Olshefski’s ‘Quest: A Portrait of an American Family’

Outside the comfort zone

In the past decade, Philadelphia has had some major recent wins: Jay-Z’s Made in America festival, being named the first UNESCO World Heritage City in the United States, the papal mass, and the Democratic National Convention. Yet we also have the distinction of being the poorest big city in America. Philadelphia-based filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski’s feature documentary Quest: A Portrait of an American Family shares a story about how the other half lives, spanning this same period through the eyes of North Philly record producer Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his family.

L to R: P.J., Ma, and Christopher "Quest" Rainey. (Photo courtesy of Sabrina Schmidt Gordon.)

Shot over 10 years, Quest makes the most of the long-term documentary format. Exploring the lives of North Philly residents who navigate poverty, drug addiction, and gun violence every day, it is a story of tremendous resilience. Quest and wife Christine’a “Ma” Rainey remain pillars of their community despite challenging circumstances, including a near-fatal shooting involving their daughter, P.J.

Quest made waves at Sundance this year and became a clear festival darling, showing in more than 75 festivals around the world leading up to its December theatrical release. As with any film that has this much hype, I was skeptical, but it lives up to its reputation and more. Throughout the film Olshefski unobtrusively captures intimate moments in a way that never feels forced. More important, his treatment of the neighborhood and its community never feels like poverty tourism, a trap into which similar projects often fall.

Required viewing

When I met Quest at PhilaMOCA’s Sundance Institute workshop earlier this year, he confirmed that his close friendship with Olshefski, affectionately nicknamed "Peter Parker" by the neighborhood, made this film possible. Olshefski takes great pains to avoid inserting himself into the story; the only time we see him is through a mirror’s reflection during the end credits.

In 'Quest,' filmed over a decade, we watch P.J. grow from a child into a young woman. (Photo courtesy of Sabrina Schmidt Gordon.)
In 'Quest,' filmed over a decade, we watch P.J. grow from a child into a young woman. (Photo courtesy of Sabrina Schmidt Gordon.)

Olshefski let the community speak for themselves and tell their own stories on their own terms. There is a real sense of fairness in this. What results is a slice of life that succeeds far beyond even the most ambitious cinema vérité, capturing the essence of these neighborhoods as tough but community-centric spaces.

Beyond Olshefski’s direction, much of the film’s power lies in Lindsay Utz’s masterful editing. She uses subtle nuances, such as fading news-coverage audio between scenes and ambient music, to make seamless transitions. Often, scenes without dialogue say the most, as when Quest contemplates his leaky roof during a rainstorm or works in the recording studio after P.J.'s first post-surgery doctor's appointment. And distant views of Center City highrises interspersed throughout the film show a parallel reality that is so close yet just out of reach.

What the film does best is to humanize a community that is constantly vilified in mass media by stories of drug addiction and gun violence. Unlike what happens in sensationalistic news coverage, we get to see what happens afterward. There is real trauma attached to gun violence, which Olshefski delves into throughout the latter half of this film, coupled with the sense of hopelessness felt by many of the young men in this neighborhood. Yet throughout, we see resilience, as the community continually rolls with life’s punches and figures out a way to keep on moving.

This is a film for Philadelphians who think of North Philly as the “Badlands.” It’s also a film for city politicians who argue about stopping the violence but who have never seen it up close. Philadelphia needs to see this film, and I hope that every resident will take the opportunity to support it and its filmmakers in their hometown theatrical premiere.

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