Nashville’s annual film festival is one of the best reasons to live here, and 2017 does not disappoint. So far, the most powerful film I’ve caught is Quest.
The documentary follows a working class black family in North Philadelphia through ten years of their lives. Shot in the style of cinema vérité, director Jonathan Olshefski captures the big events and the small, endearing moments that come between, completing a moving portrait of an American family.
The Rainey family has a music studio based in their home, where parents Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his wife Christine’a record local hip hop artists and invite neighborhood boys to freestyle on Fridays in an effort to provide a creative outlet. Their daughter PJ grows up before our eyes from a sweet, bouncy child to a young adult who has undergone a traumatic injury. All of the Raineys are admirable, but PJ unwittingly emerges as the heroine of the story.
I love Guy Lodge’s Variety review:
Inhabiting the loving, creative, occasionally conflicted household of Christopher and Christine’a Rainey with close-quarters warmth that never crosses the line from intimate to invasive, Olshefski’s film doesn’t set out with a thesis to prove. Rather, it finds its resonance as it goes along, stumbling into crisis as spontaneously as its human subjects do, and finally emerging as an essential reflection of social transitions — for better and worse — in Barack Obama’s America.
What’s so great about Quest is that Olshefski collaborated closely with the Raineys over the ten year period, and much of the soundtrack is composed by Quest himself. Olshefski, who is a white photographer, didn’t set out to make a documentary about a North Philly family; Quest’s brother invited him to the house, and then Quest invited him back to photograph the local artists working in the studio. They formed a relationship; Olshefski began a photo essay, and for a year and half, he blended into the furniture and photographed them. Because of this, it doesn’t seem to take on the “white gaze” that so often accompanies documentaries about people of color. There’s a sense of great empathy that doesn’t patronize. While the Raineys experience tragedy that brings North Philly’s street violence into focus, their pain is not put on display. Rather, it centers the family’s experiences as a close portrait of an American family.