PRINT Summer 2017


Jonathan Olshefski, Quest, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 105 minutes. From left: Patricia (P. J.) Rainey, Christine’a Rainey, Christopher Rainey. Production still.

“THE FILMMAKERS would like to thank the Rainey family for sharing their story.” The credit appears at the end of Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary Quest. It may be the only familiar note in a movie that is utterly unique in its choice of subject—a truly enviable family from America’s black underclass—and the way that subject is depicted. The words of thanks, which elsewhere would register as a pro forma courtesy, here invoke the very spirit that made the film possible: The Raineys’ ethos, politics, and practice of sharing their energy, skills, talents, and friendship inform every aspect of their existence, including their relationship with Olshefski and, by extension, with the audience for his film.

Some backstory, not directly referenced in the movie, about the making of Quest: In 2006, Olshefski was teaching a free photography workshop in Philadelphia. One of his students introduced him to Christopher Rainey, aka Quest, a music producer who ran a recording studio out of his North Philly home, with weekly open-mic sessions for aspiring rappers. Olshefski is Caucasian; Rainey is African American, as are his artists, his family, and, as far as one can tell from the film, all his neighbors. The two men bonded, nevertheless, over their belief in community outreach through the arts, and perhaps because they both supported themselves with part-time jobs so they could concentrate on the nonpaying work they love. Olshefski took photos and videos of the rappers Rainey recorded, and he slept over at the Raineys’ house so he could shoot a photo series of Quest on the job, delivering advertising circulars in the early-morning hours. One can tell from the intimacy of the images in Quest’s opening scenes that Olshefski had long since been accepted into the household when he videoed Quest and Christine’a (aka Ma Quest) getting dressed for their wedding. The couple had already been together fifteen years and had a daughter, Patricia Rainey, or P. J., who was then about nine. They married around the time of Obama’s election in 2008. Olshefski continued to record the Raineys for the next eight years, winding up with more than three hundred hours of video. In 2014, he attended the Independent Filmmaker Project’s documentary lab, just to get some information about how to post-produce what he had thought would be a series of short videos to be shown in community venues. Instead, he was advised that he had the raw material for an important documentary but that he needed professional assistance. With editor Lindsay Utz and producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, Olshefski pruned his footage into a 105-minutefeature, which premiered in January at Sundance, is currently screening in major documentary festivals in the US and abroad, and is scheduled to air in 2018 on PBS’s POV series (provided PBS continues to exist). The first notable American example of the genre of documentary where moviemakers follow their subject(s) over a relatively long period was the 1973 PBS series An American Family, conceived and produced by Craig Gilbert and shot (on film) by Alan and Susan Raymond. The Loud family, white, upper-middle-class residents of Santa Barbara, California, allowed themselves to be filmed every day for seven months, during which time several crises—whether exacerbated by the camera’s scrutiny or not—tore the family apart. The parents split; their son Lance left home for New York, where he came out to his mother during her brief visit to his digs at the Chelsea Hotel and took her to La MaMa to see Jackie Curtis’s camp musical Vain Victory (1971), starring Curtis, Candy Darling, and an array of Warhol superstars. (The clips of what was one of the most delirious theater productions of the last third of the twentieth century make An American Family revelatory in a way that no one at PBS could have anticipated.) An American Family made the cover of Newsweek and precipitated a flood of less rigorously nonfictional TV series, from The Real World to The Apprentice. Two other serious long-form documentaries have since focused on families: Hoop Dreams (1994), Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert’s depiction of the systematically cruel and institutionally exploitative treatment of two African American high school athletes, and the less celebrated Love & Diane (2002), by Jennifer Dworkin. While teaching photography in a Harlem homeless shelter, Dworkin met Diane, a black, single, drug-addicted mother of five. Love & Diane follows her for years as she struggles to get clean so that she can regain custody of her children, by which time her daughterLove has herself become a single mother and an addict who is about to lose custody of her own child and needs Diane’s help to survive. The film shows the effects of poverty and racism on generation after generation of African American women. Like Quest, Hoop Dreams and Love & Diane are portraits of economically struggling black families that were made by white college-educated filmmakers with middle-class upbringings.

If Quest seems a movie apart, then, it is primarily because it is a close-up depiction of a family that is not only not pathological but estimable, and its members are not presented as, nor do they see themselves as, victims of a society defined by economic inequality and racism (though it’s obvious that Chris and Christine’a Rainey would have been presented with—and greatly benefited from—a far wider array of opportunities in life had they been middle-class whites). The film is very much a political critique of American society, but it doesn’t need to show us a victim to prove the failure of democratic institutions. The Raineys may be the most determined, most resilient, and least “troubled” economically struggling family of any race that we’ve ever seen in an American movie. Quest’s mother died before the film begins, but she lives on through the lesson she instilled in her son: to always find something constructive, rather than destructive, to do with your life. Terrible things happen to members of the family, but their lives are not defined by them and the film doesn’t ratchet them up to make drama. The Raineys get upset, angry, frustrated, grief-stricken, but they adjust and they move on. The ability to adapt while holding fast to whatever gives one’s existence meaning is, any psychologist will tell you, high on the list of skills necessary to live a fulfilling life. The Raineys have honed that skill to an uncommon degree over lives that have been far from easy, and their steadfastness; their hard-earned, clear-eyed wisdom; and their profound decency in the face of often extreme adversity are what make this documentary so moving.

Jonathan Olshefski, Quest, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 105 minutes. Christopher Rainey and Christine’a Rainey. Production still.

Olshefski shot virtually the entire film handheld with small digital cameras, in a style so transparent that we forget there is a camera involved at all. No fly on the wall, however, could have Olshefski’s eye for the warmth of natural light, for the emotion expressed in a spontaneous gesture and the way it transforms a composition, for the sensuous details of daily life. Quest is a visually inviting movie about a family that lives in a house with a leaky roof and crumbling plaster, which needs to be scraped and repainted more often than anyone has time to, and yet they find joy in simply being together under that roof every day. In addition to favoring unobtrusive camerawork and keeping himself out of the picture, Olshefski made another definitive choice: leaving it entirely up to the Raineys to narrate their own story. The voice track comprises sync-sound speech as well as voice-overs, the latter taken from both conversational and action scenes otherwise discarded. There are no talking-head sequences, no off-camera posing of questions by the filmmaker. Which is not to say that Olshefski didn’t direct the film, but rather to point out that his direction is largely a matter of the editing decisions he made with Utz. The two of them controlled what material out of the vast trove of raw footage made it into the film.

Quest moves rapidly and elliptically through the decade of its making. During the first twenty-odd minutes, the years 2007 to 2012 pass by in quick succession. We see bacon sputtering and crackling in a pan, P. J. drumming on the kitchen windowsill (the pitch changing depending on where her fists land), family and friends slipping into wedding clothes, Quest showing P. J. how to tie a bow, and the minister saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Mr. and Mrs.”—“Rainey,” exclaim Christopher and Christine’a simultaneously, just for the joy of saying it, or maybe because they’re saving the minister from the embarrassment of not knowing whom he’s marrying. All that and more constitutes the movie’s earliest multilayered scene. Lots of other introductions follow: to Quest’s paper route and the Raineys’ neighborhood, which is plastered with OBAMA 2008 posters. To the women and children’s shelter where Ma Quest works and where we see her on her laptop, looking at pictures from one of Quest’s “Free Style Friday” sessions. To William, Ma Quest’s twenty-one-year-old son from a previous relationship, and to his infant son, as they move into the Raineys’ house while William undergoes treatment for a brain tumor. We hear Quest’s thoughts about the North Philadelphia he loves—“When you do talk to people, you find out they’re not as hard as they appear to be”—and about growing up in the more dangerous projects and how bad it was in 1983 when the crack epidemic started. All of a sudden, it’s 2012: “Good morning, Facebook! Get up and vote today!” But no sooner is Obama reelected than he’s on TV, giving his brokenhearted speech after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and we hear him inventorying all the massacres—including those that transpired with unconscionable frequency “on a street corner in Chicago”—that happened since he first became president. Now we see P. J., suddenly a teenager, dedicatedly practicing her basketball moves and her unerring jump shot in the playground, as Quest looks on, grinning with pride. And then we see something disquieting: The camera holds on a close-up of the torn cotton webbing around the metal basketball hoop. It’s the first (perhaps the only) visual metaphor in a film in which close-ups of objects have hitherto been purely metonymic. What Quest will later describe as a “horrible, tragic accident” has been augured. As P. J. walks home one afternoon from the playground, a stray bullet from a shootout a block away takes out her eye. We see her in the hospital, confused and in pain. In this moment, our relationship to the film changes.

“These children are our children,” says Obama. And P. J. becomes our child—not that she would want to be, independent, prickly teenager that she is. What happens to her in real life, as it is presented to us through the brilliantly edited playground and hospital sequences, turns the documentary into a mirror for the audience. As we watch the second act of the film (which transpires during the course of 2013 through 2016), Quest and his wife invest all their energy into making sure that P. J.’s life is not diminished or blighted and that the life of the Rainey family carries on unaltered, but our sense of who we are—or who I am and who you are—is transfigured. Olshefski and the Raineys set out to make a video series to show to people in similar communities—people like the Raineys. They ended up making a film that screens in festivals where the majority of the audience are white college graduates for whom the Raineys are likely as other as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook. Quest provides these viewers a shattering flash of insight, made possible by their feelings for P. J., as to what a loss it is for them, for all of us, to live in a society so malignantly segregated by race and by class that we can have lost sight of—or, worse, never recognized in the first place—the most basic humanity of those many millions (of color or in need) from whom we are systemically sheltered. In the very ordinary life—in the very ordinariness of the life—that the Raineys have so generously shared with us, we are finally able to make out an absolutely extraordinary family: one that, for all our privilege, we’d never before been afforded the privilege of seeing.

Quest begins with a father teaching his daughter to tie a bow and ends with him standing right beside her, murmuring encouragement as she struggles to put in place a new artificial eye. Olshefski was fortunate to record the intimacy of family life at its most tender and liberating, but it is the Raineys who have gifted us this indelible image of a love to which we can only aspire.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.