Quest – Film Review by Frank L
Directed by Jonathan Olshefski
In 2006, Olshefski was teaching an adult photography class in Philadelphia in an area known as North Philly. It is a neighbourhood, according to Olshefski, riddled with the same issues of inequality and neglect that plagues so much of America’s urban landscape. One member of the class introduced Olshefski to his brother Christopher Rainey who runs a music studio out of his house a few blocks away. Initially, Olshefski wanted to create a photographic documentary of Chris’s life with his family in North Philly but after about eighteen months he became convinced that a documentary film would be a better medium to convey the complexity of their lives. It would be a more effective medium for reflecting their point of view and would allow Olshefski to amplify their voices.
The result was that over the next eight years he became the proverbial fly on the wall in the Rainey household as he filmed their daily happenings. In the end he shot over 300 hours of film. However the resultant movie “Quest” lasts a mere hundred and four minutes. The story revolves around Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a Rainey, “Ma Quest” and their daughter PJ who is about eight years old when the documentary begins. Both Quest and Christine’a have had previous relationships with resulting children. In particular her son William aged twenty or so has at the beginning of the film just been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. He also has an infant son, Isaiah, who Christine’a cares for. She has a job working in a domestic violence refuge centre. Quest has a job delivering, early in the morning, free papers and advertisements in the locality and his home studio is the central resource for various young rappers in the neighbourhood. He has a splendid skill which he performs nonchalantly as he, with a flick of his wrist, launches a plastic bundle which as if it had a homing device within it, lands on the top step of the correct house! Quest has made a sanctuary of his studio for the young rappers who frequent it. However, PJ is the centrepiece of her parents’ lives.
There is an unspoken determination on the parents’ part that they will do right by PJ. One of the manifestations of this determination is the methodical and patient way Christine’a braids PJ’s hair. It is an act of love. Given the length of time over which the film was made, there are inevitably some disquieting moments. These include a problem which any parents of a teenager might encounter regardless of where they live but also a happening which would be exceedingly rare in a more affluent environment than North Philly. These incidents add admirable substance to the story as Quest and Ma Quest are there for their daughter come what may.
The daily life of the Rainey family is a story well worth the telling for a myriad of reasons. Olshefski’s unobtrusive cinematography allows the Rainey family to do the talking. The end result is that Quest proclaims the quintessential decency of people even if they are living in circumstances which many more privileged people would find intolerable. Olshefski in what is his first feature film has created a fine documentary and it is timely in that it traverses the Obama years and the Trump presidential campaign.