A decadelong project that follows the life of one close-knit North Philadelphia family, Jonathan Olshefski's first feature film, Quest, started out simply.
In 2006, Olshefski, now 36, was two years out of Temple University and pursuing photography projects in North Philly. In one, he focused on Christopher "Quest" Rainey, 49, and his in-home rap studio, Everquest Recordings. A fixture near 23rd and Norris Streets, the studio has served as a safe space for the area's youth and hosts an open-house "Freestyle Friday" every week.
But as Olshefski got to know Quest and his family — wife Christine'a "Ma Quest" Rainey, 42; daughter Patricia "PJ" Rainey, 18; and several children from previous relationships — he began to see a universal story about connection and community..
So in fall 2007, he expanded the project into a documentary and started filming the family with cinéma vérité intimacy. He didn't stop until late last year, after accumulating nearly 400 hours of footage — moments that included everything from the start of Barack Obama's presidency in 2008 to PJ's losing an eye to gun violence in her neighborhood at 13 in 2013, as well as her recovery.
Now, with the Raineys' past 10 years condensed into the film's tight one-hour, 40-minute running time, the world is about to get its first look at the family through a theatrical release via First Run Features. Quest has its premiere in Philly on Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse, with Q&As with the Raineys and Olshefski at screenings through the weekend. Openings in New York and Los Angeles, as well as a wider national release, are scheduled to follow. The film had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and has already received critical acclaim. It's been shown at film festivals around the country and was nominated for best documentary at the 2018 Indie Spirit Awards.
Olshefski, a Pittsburgh native, said in a recent interview alongside Quest and PJ that the real work is only just beginning.
"I see the film as a spark," Olshefski, an associate professor of radio, TV, and film at Rowan University, said. "It's a specific family and specific place, but it really focuses in on those universal human emotions so that people from anywhere can see this film and see themselves in it. We need those opportunities to connect beyond the perceived barriers we put between ourselves and other folks. With the film, there's a potential for that."
In 2006, Olshefksi was working in construction by day while teaching a photography class for adults in North Philly and making art on the side. It was at his photography class that one student, Quest's brother James, asked Olshefksi if he wanted to see a music studio run out of a basement just a couple of blocks away.
Olshefski showed up on Quest's front steps and was understandably met with suspicion.
"When he knocked on the door, the first thing I thought was cops or something," Quest said. "He had a camera in his hands — what's the deal? The guys had been kind of skeptical when he first started coming around, but they warmed up to him pretty fast. It was pretty much what we needed at the time: We needed a photographer. We had the music already."
Olshefksi started by just taking pictures but eventually came to see himself in Quest, who worked an early-morning store circular route in addition to running the recording studio. The pair were both artists with day jobs trying to make ends meet. Olshefski decided to follow Quest to work. Living in Kensington at the time, he stayed on Quest's studio couch to make the early-morning call for the paper route.
"I'd spend the whole day with them on the paper route and got to know that whole crew," Olshefski said. "Through sleeping over, I got to know the family. PJ was probably 6 or 7 when I first met her."
He transitioned to filming the Raineys in 2007. An early version of the documentary was finished in December that year, but Olshefski decided he needed more footage.
No one expected that to mean almost a decade more of filming, least of all Quest's wife, who can be seen working at a homeless women's shelter and taking care of her family throughout the film. It was a busy time for her, and, as she said in a recent phone interview, Olshefski made it easy. But had she known it would be a 10-year endeavor, we might be seeing a different film.
"If I thought he would have been doing this for 10 years, I don't think I probably would have been doing it," Christine'a Rainey said. "But it was like a pot of water boiling slowly. It developed into a beautiful baby."
The Raineys and Olshefski credit that development to how ingrained the filmmaker became in the community over the course of shooting; Christine'a said he became like family. He ate dinners with the Raineys and witnessed their most personal moments, such as PJ's early trips to specialists after she was shot, and the couple caring for grandson Isaiah as Christine'a's son William Withers received chemotherapy for brain cancer.
In the neighborhood, the Raineys said Olshefski is known only as "Peter Parker," a nickname bestowed upon him by Everquest-affiliated rapper Price because of his penchant for climbing around on furniture like Spider-Man in the studio to get properly angled shots — and because he's "a white guy with a camera," as Christine'a said.
"When he walks down the street, everybody's like, 'Yo, Peter Parker!," she said. "They have no idea his name is Jon."
The care that earned Olshefski his nickname also resulted in a markedly nonexploitative film, which Quest and Olshefski say they both worked to avoid. Rather than a gawking piece that sees its subjects as victims, Quest takes a more personal, respectful approach — an aspect the film's eponymous star said is rooted in the relationship between the director and his subjects.
"The one thing I always hear is, 'Is this a white guy telling a black guy's story?' It's actually two friends helping to tell the same story," Quest said. "It's simple: He's my friend, and I'm his friend. I don't think anybody would be able to shoot a film like this without becoming friends with who they're shooting."
Olshefski said he could have worked on the film much longer, but the fact that the Quest crew got some funding to finish the project helped move things along. He received a $100,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as a sponsorship from the Independent Filmmaker Project, among other sources of funding.
The Raineys and Olshefski have continued to focus on the North Philly community where Quest was filmed, holding screenings of the film for residents throughout the film's development. Though the Raineys are the core of the film, North Philly provides the backdrop.
Other neighbors are "very, very up right now" over the film, Christine'a said. Some Everquest recording artists, like rapper Ron Geez, have enjoyed more popularity since Quest started making the rounds, which Christine'a said had helped boost egos in the area because the film "made them feel a lot more important."
"I see the pride it has put into a lot of kids" in the neighborhood, she said.
Ditto for PJ, whose emotional recovery was aided by film. Not only did her neighbors watch her recover in real time, they've now seen it on film. "It forced people to talk about the subject," Quest said.
PJ graduated from Constitution High School in June and is pursuing a career in music alongside her father while working a day job cleaning Lincoln Financial Field, like her half-brother William before her. She also hopes to continue her education, at Rowan University, and has been considering motivational speaking opportunities.
Olshefski is now working on another multiyear project that began in Philadelphia, focusing on a Native American family that spans three generations. It's now about where Quest was a few years ago: "A pile of footage and a lot of love and passion," Olshefski said.
With Quest's theatrical release, the Raineys and Olshefski said they hope it can have a lasting effect on North Philadelphia by creating a connection between that neighborhood and society at large. As Olshefski said, he was able to connect with and relate to an area that he ostensibly had no connection with before filming, and "that beauty doesn't always get conveyed" due to sensationalized news stories and apathy.
"Where we live at, people go through a lot of stuff, just like we do," PJ said. "I hope people gain empathy because, before I got shot, I used to laugh at people who had disabilities when I saw it. When it happened to me, it was like, 'It's not funny at all.' Now, I hope everybody gains that."