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Director’s Notebook

Director Jonathan Olshefski and Producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon discuss process in QUEST

Hot Docs: What was it about the Rainey family that inspired you to follow them, and continued to inspire you for a decade?

Jonathan Olshefski: In 2006, I was teaching a photography class in North Philly and one of my students told me about the music studio, Everquest Recordings, that the Raineys ran out of their house, and made an initial introduction. The Raineys later invited me to take photos in the studio as a way to promote their artists and build them up. When I first got there I was just blown away by the energy of the community. The studio was packed out with folks from the neighborhood, notebooks filled with lyrics, really passionate performances. It just had a DIY grassroots vibe that captivated me, and that I wanted to be a part of.

Early on, I really connected to Christopher “Quest” Rainey and a lot of the studio guys, Price in particular, who ends up being featured in the film. It quickly became about the relationships. I wanted to support their art, and they wanted to support mine. As we got to know each other, I learned about life away from the studio and felt like it would be cool to do a photo essay paralleling the creative life with the daily grind, which lead to me following Quest around on his early paper route.

A year and a half in I began shooting video to better convey what it feels like to be a part of the community, to incorporate sounds, voices, and motion, to make a short little documentary to expand on the photo project. We just wanted to make a small piece that could have a life in Philadelphia and get the word out about the studio. The plan definitely was not to film for ten years. In 2008, I became a husband and a father and that brought a new perspective. I became very interested in the family aspect of the story and how one would balance caring for family while also getting through the daily grind and pursuing a creative passion. 

What sustained the project through the years was that I really wanted to honor the Rainey’s trust, and take the time to craft a film that reflected the warmth and tenderness of a family that I came to know very well.


HD: Jon – this is your first feature, and I read somewhere that you like to emphasize collaboration with your subjects. What does the collaborative process look like to you?

JO: For me it is a relationship before it is anything else. My subjects are also my friends.

This film started off with the Raineys inviting me into their home studio simply as a means to support the artists they cared so deeply about.  When I expressed interested in knowing more about them and their backstories, they really allowed me into their lives in a really incredible way. Their flexibility and willingness to put up with me was really out of care and desire to help me develop as a photographer/filmmaker.

They also realized that sharing their story could be another way to connect to people and empower people - it was the same instinct that lead them to open their studio up to the neighborhood. They are proud of what they have overcome and what they have created, so they were as invested in telling the story as I was. The first couple of years were pretty quiet, but in 2012/2013 the Raineys went through some pretty difficult times. Having a camera around during normal daily routines is one things, but when you are in the midst of a crisis it is totally different. But they invited me to be there with them through this stuff, with my camera. They wanted to document their experiences because they thought that it would be a way to make something positive come from some extremely hard moments.

The Raineys and I discussed the film as it developed over the years. There were many cuts and many local screenings over the years as the film took shape. We would discuss each version, so I after ten years I had a pretty good sense of what the Raineys felt was important to share with the world. Also, having these experiences with small audiences really helped to prepare us for what it would be like to share the film on a larger scale.

HD: Sabrina, how did you get involved with the project?

SG: A mutual filmmaker friend of ours told me about this first-time filmmaker he met and was in need of a producer. “Hmm…a white guy in the ‘hood filming Black folks performing hip-hop...I dunno.” I was skeptical. I think filmmakers of color, and audiences alike, have grown weary of the “white gaze,” one that, at times, feels exotifying, reductive, or simply uninformed. So much so that the question, “Who gets to tell whose story?” and hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, #DocumentariesSoWhite have been making the rounds on social media and filmmaking panels nationwide. I was honest with Jon about my reticence and he was very open to the conversation. As I watched, it became clear to me that Jon had developed a deep and intimate connection with the Raineys. There are moments captured in the film that I don’t think can be explained any other way. Without being specific, there’s a moment when most filmmakers would be asked to step away; but the Raineys brought Jon closer. I knew then that we could create a sensitive and thoughtful portrait of this family.

HD: What do you hope Hot Docs audiences take away from Quest?

 JO: My hope is that audiences truly connect and see themselves in the Rainey’s story and reflect on their own lives, relationships and choices. I hope audiences are inspired by the Rainey’s story, but also challenged to think about how larger systemic forces impact real lives.

HD: Why is this story particularly resonant right now?

SG: QUEST was filmed during a transformative decade, culminating in this present moment. We elected Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, and we experience all the hope and excitement of that with the Raineys. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was also born during this time. It is never overtly mentioned, but I think the Rainey’s story embodies everything that the movement is about, which at its core, is a call for the dignity and thriving of all Black people. It’s one thing to talk about issues and social ills, but it’s another to see what it looks like when a community doesn’t have equal access and opportunity, and how a family copes with the impact of that in their daily lives. Then, finally, the election of Donald Trump, and the campaign that preceded, revealed a lot about the division and brokenness of American society. I think the Rainey’s generosity, commitment and love for their community and for each other is all the more inspirational and deeply felt, in this moment, when we really need it.

HD: How do you logistically keep a production going for 10 years? How do you continue to appeal to funders and broadcasters? What was your work flow like?

JO: This was a passion project. A mostly one-man-band approach to production, with no budget. I never made a film before so didn’t even consider funders or broadcasters in the first 8 years. I just loved the process. I loved spending time with the Raineys and their community. I felt known and supported by them. It was also a fun challenge to figure out where to position myself and how to capture a scene. As this was my first documentary, I was learning all of this as I went. There was a real ebb and flow over the years - I was also balancing my growing family and paying the bills, so there were some years where I fully embedded for periods of time, and others years where I only stopped by to film a handful of times. 

HD: What was the result of your Deal Maker meetings at Hot Docs 2016? Did any funders come on board as a result of those meetings?

JO: Deal Maker meetings really got the ball rolling with our broadcaster AMDOC/POV. That is where we had our first real conversation. It also lead to an introduction to Gordon Quinn and Kartemquin, which resulted in us screening a rough cut as a part of their rough cut lab in November 2016.

HD: What’s next for the film?

SG: We are looking forward to a theatrical run soon, and broadcast on the acclaimed US documentary series, POV, in 2018. In between those, we plan to launch a robust community engagement and impact campaign with the film. I think QUEST provides a unique opportunity for communities across the country to be brought together. Together, with the Raineys, the campaign would be our contribution toward healing the immense division in our country right now. We are also building partnerships with people and organizations across disciplines, focus areas, and industries so that the film may be used as a tool for social change and community empowerment. We want to spread the Rainey’s message of love and hope, as well as inspire others with their unwavering commitment and generosity to community. 

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