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Indie film focuses on urban realities, community, family with ‘heart’

Contributed • Mar 9, 2018 at 11:56 PM

In 2006, filmmaker and then-photography teacher Jon Olshefski met Christopher “Quest” and Christine’a Rainey and began a photo essay on the life of the couple and their family in North Philadelphia.

Work turned into friendship, admiration and shared vision, and 10 years later, an in-depth story about the Raineys, their inner-city basement music studio and a collection of creative and resilient people trying to keep their heads above the poverty line.

“QUEST,” the resulting debut documentary film for Olshefski that became a New York Times Critics Pick, will be screened at East Tennessee State University on Monday, March 12, at 7 p.m. in the D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium.

Sponsored by the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, the free public screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session and reception with filmmaker Olshefski and film subject Christopher “Quest” Rainey.

Filmed in cinema vérité over that 10-year period, “QUEST” is the tender and emotional depiction of this North Philly family through joy and heartbreak and a country often in turmoil.

The Raineys blend together now-grown children from previous relationships, including a son with a brain tumor and a newborn; a younger daughter, P.J.; and fellow musicians with addictions and other challenges.

Yet every Friday is “Freestyle Friday” at the Raineys’ studio. Quest produces hip-hop recordings in his studio, which is a refuge for many friends, while Christine’a serves the community, working at a women’s shelter.

“Christopher, Christine'a, and P.J. are beautiful to watch together,” NPR says, “and there’s hope in witnessing them persevere – in an underserved neighborhood, against shifting political tides, beset by the random cruelties of fate. … ‘QUEST’ is the type of independent film about American life that should be common but is rare in actuality.”

The Guardian calls it “a window into the life of an African American family … an observational documentary about the black American Dream.”

“I think we all have a little voyeur in us,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts.

“I know that I like an opportunity to look into how other people live, what their life process is like. ‘QUEST’ is a long-term view of real lives with heartbreak and happiness and a unique ‘quest’ to help others and make a better community, if not world.”

Quest delivers newspapers to pay bills, so he can produce hip-hop records, his passion. Christine’a and others are involved in getting out the vote during elections and rallying forces against gun violence. Babies are born and tragedies occur in the Raineys’ neighborhood.

“We had this vision of telling the ‘true story’ of North Philadelphia from the perspective of the community,” says Olshefski, who filmed the entire documentary himself to keep costs down, “as opposed to the way it’s normally told from the outside … without media imposing their pre-defined point of view.”

The result, Olshefski said he hopes, will be multi-dimensional.

“The No. 1 goal of this film was to gather material that would allow the viewer to connect to the Rainey family,” he tells Filmmaker Magazine. “The No. 2 goal was to tell the story artfully and capture images that would convey the beauty of the family and the neighborhood.

“The result of this long-term commitment was that I was able to fade into the background and record natural scenes where the camera was not intrusive … I was there with a camera and they knew I was there, but I became like furniture.”

A third goal, Olshefski says, was to create a film that would be a catalyst for connection and change in a society that, he says, is “incredibly polarized … and desperate for opportunities to connect across the various barriers that separate us.”

Good things have already resulted. Not only has “QUEST” been selected for over 75 festivals, including Sundance and HotDocs, but the documentary has received numerous awards and nominations.

On a more personal level, because of the documentary, the True Life Fund selected the Raineys to receive a “no strings attached” gift for sharing their story, and their youngest, P.J., who wants to follow in her father’s musical footsteps, has been singled out for a scholarship to Rowan University in sound and music.

Olshefski himself holds an M.F.A. in Film and Media Arts from Temple University and is an associate professor of radio, TV and film at Rowan University.

“I will say that I did make this film for North Philadelphia and places like it,” Olshefski says. “My hope is that this experience enhances our ability to create a context around the film so that North Philly benefits from it.

“I believe that a story well-told and brought to a place in a compassionate way can build bridges and strengthen community.

“I hope that, beyond building an initial connection with viewers, the film will spark real commitment to support and embrace communities like North Philadelphia.”

Filmgoers will see themselves in this film, Olshefski says. “I have been touring with the film for a year and people have been touched in a powerful way,” he says.

“There’s something really special that happens when you watch a film with a group of people. Connections happen and community is built. I hope it goes farther than one evening of that and goes deeper than that, but I think it’s a starting point.”

The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

Founded in 1975, South Arts is a nonprofit regional arts organization building on the South's unique heritage and enhancing the public value of the arts.

For more information, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.

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