Filmed over the span of 10 years, “Quest” is an intimate portrait of the Rainey family as they deal with both the trivialities and tribulations that their life in North Philadelphia has to offer. The emotionally gripping documentary was shown Saturday at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and won the festival’s Grand Jury award. The Chronicle sat down with director Jonathan Olshefski, producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, editor Lindsay Utz and stars Christopher “Quest” Rainey, Christine “Ma” Rainey and P.J. Rainey to discuss the film. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Chronicle: How did the relationship between Jon and the Rainey family begin?
Quest Rainey: The way Jon and I met was through my brother. My brother was attending a photography class in the neighborhood and he pretty much told Jon about my studio and asked him if he wanted to come over and meet me. He came in, told me that he was taking pictures and I asked him if he would mind taking pictures of the guys in my studio and he said, “Sure, why not.” And it kind of went from there.
TC: How long, exactly, did you film “Quest”?
Jonathan Olshefski: The photo project began in 2006, we did that for a year and a half. In the fall of 2007 we started filming and we were still gathering footage in the fall of 2016. So we filmed for almost 10 years.
TC: Was there a certain point when you realized that this was going to be something more long-form, or was the documentary always going to be that way?
JO: At first the idea was to just to do a short little piece about Quest’s studio and the paper route [he worked], kind of a nice, easy, visually interesting thing. But working on that I got to know the Rainey family more and their backstory, and I went, “Wow, these guys have been through a lot,” just in the daily routines. So I felt like maybe I should go a little deeper, that there was something more there, let’s push a little further.
TC: How did you decide to end the filming process?
JO: In the earlier years, there was no external pressure. There was no studio that was going to support us, so it was really about the passion. It was probably 2014, eight years into this thing, when we were accepted into the IFP Documentary Lab and they basically said, “There’s really something here, but you need to get a team and some funding.” Which was pretty encouraging but pretty stressful, cause once you get money coming in, the clock does start ticking.
TC: How weird or hard of a decision was it to allow someone to come into your home to film you?
QR: When Jon came in, it mostly felt like he was doing us a favor because he was taking photos of the guys in the studio and we were also helping him with his project. For me, it was very normal, very comfortable. It was weird the first couple of days because every time you turned around the camera was right there. At first, when he spent the night, I thought, “Okay, he’s going to follow me on my paper route.” I didn’t know he was going to film me getting out of bed. [Laughs] So that part was a little strange, but other than that, it was alright.
Christine Rainey: I got used to it in time. In the beginning, I was just helping a friend out. And then he wasn’t in the way, so I had nothing negative to feel about him being there. Sometimes I might’ve felt like, “Not today.” But it was alright. It was a little weird sometimes, but when you’re friends with the person who’s following you, it’s okay.
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P.J. Rainey: When I was younger, I thought it was cool at first. I had no problem with it. But as I turned into a teenager, I started thinking, “This isn’t going to be a movie so why are we recording?” [Laughs] It was a little annoying, but now, I appreciate everything because of what it turned into.
TC: One of the most stunning parts of the film is its editing, because there weren’t distinct time stamps present but there is a very noticeable passage of time.
Lindsay Utz: I think there were temporal signposts in the material and, for me, it was a more interesting way to approach storytelling rather than crutching on a certain year. We decided to use cues that were more subtle to anchor the audience and create the sense that time is moving forward.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon: I think, too, when talking about these temporal sign-posts, we tried to emphasize that this isn’t a story about a marginalized community–this is really an American experience. We all experienced Sandy Hook, we all experienced the elections in ’08 and ’12. So that also helps to remind folks that this is our experience.
TC: There’s definitely context to the film. How did you strike the balance between allowing “Quest” to have universality while resonating within the specific community involved?
LU: The approach was to always develop the family’s story first. Developing Quest’s studio came later. Jon hadn’t shot a lot of neighborhood scenes to begin with because he was so laser-focused on capturing the intimacy of the family that when we started editing, Sabrina and I suggested we go out and try to get the texture of the neighborhood.
TC: Is it odd watching the film now? What experience do you have seeing it?
QR: The weird thing for me is listening to people at the Q&As afterwards, when people walk up to us and share the similarities in their lives that they see with us. The relationships that come out of this are unique, and that’s weird at first, but when I start thinking about it, maybe that’s a good thing.
LU: The experience of watching the film is strange for me because when we locked picture before Sundance I was totally numb. I couldn’t feel the film at all anymore because I was so close to it. And now that we screen it at these festivals, it’s like you get to see it for the first time through everybody else’s eyes and I’m starting to feel it again because I have more distance from the material.
SSG.: You get so caught up in the details and you forget it’s this big, immense thing.
PJR: I feel as though the film helped me move on from what happened. I’m lucky. I could tell my story when not everybody gets the chance to.