More often than not, impoverished communities, especially those in inner cities are cast aside and forgotten about. Film, along with the rest of the world rarely pays attention to the people who live in these neighborhoods and the events that occur within them. Unless the film’s narrative is one of unimaginable tragedy or a rags-to-riches tale; one would assume from what cinema shows us, that these communities and these very real people don’t exist at all. With his beautiful and gently paced debut feature documentary “Quest,” director Jonathan Olshefski shatters the stereotypes of the inner city by giving one family a platform. We are introduced to the Raineys, an ordinary family living in North Philadelphia shortly after President Barack Obama’s first election in 2008.
We meet Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his to-be wife, Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey a few days before their wedding. Though the duo had been a couple for nearly two decades by that time; with a twenty-one-year-old son, William and a thirteen-year-old daughter PJ; the pair is eager for their impending nuptials. We watch as the couple is bonded in matrimony in a sea of pink and white roses with Christine’a donning a glittery tiara. The film slides forward, slowly marking time mostly through television broadcasts of Obama as he addresses the nation about various horrific mass shootings. PJ propelling forward into teenhood and her constant growth spurts are perhaps the other only time markers.
The subtle but striking documentary follows the family for nearly a decade; we watch as spectators to the Raineys’ everyday life as they deal with illness, tragedies, surprises and the joys of life. They are a family that looks very much like my own; their rhythms though they aren’t my actual kin are familiar. Though they are clearly living under the poverty level, it’s the subtle moments; those quiet intimacies of everyday life that pull at your heart and make you want to linger with them. We watch Christine’a talking softly on the phone to her husband during her fifteen-minute break at her job at a domestic violence women’s shelter and Quest taking PJ to school on his bike as she clings to his back while sitting on the make-shift backseat.
That’s the thing about Christine’a and Quest; they are always present not just in relation to one another, but also with their children. Despite the daily hardships, their love for one another is unwavering. Let’s be clear, the Raineys’ do not have it easy, and Olshefski doesn’t shy away from the difficult moments. We watch Will’s cancer treatments which leaves his newborn son Isaiah in the care of his mother and Quest. Later on, PJ grapples with a major unforeseen event that devastates the entire family and the close knight neighborhood surrounding them.
And yet, that’s the beauty of cinema-verité style where the filmmaker like the audience, simply sits back and observes. We witness Quest working in the wee hours of the morning delivering newspapers, and during the days and evening, he runs a recording studio called Everquest, which has been a community staple for well over a decade. It’s his outlet, his way of coping with a world that seems to be constantly crumbling around him.Admittedly, the film is slower than most; but it nurtures the audience in the sense that you simply sit with the Raineys as the years slip away and they move through their lives. Three-hundred hours of film cut down to just under two, we watch PJ as she comes to terms with her sexuality and Will as he tries to get back on his feet. There is a ton of love here not just within the family itself, but for North Philly and the music that constantly ebbs and flows in and out of Everquest.
Olshefski’s choice to take a step back here instead of claiming the “right” to tell the Raineys’ story is an important one; as a white filmmaker with no ties to North Philadelphia; “Quest” could have easily been voyeuristic. However, his choice to let the Raineys tell their own story was obviously well thought out. Addressing these concerns in his director’s statement, he wrote, “I don’t know if I am the right person to answer that question. I made the film, and I stand by my choices, but I don’t think I have any inherent right.”
“Quest” does not conclude with a big sweeping finish, PJ now an adult has come into herself, Will and his son Isaiah move out on their own, while Christine’a and Quest bicker lovingly over their daughter’s sexuality. In one of the final moments in the film, Christine’a speaks directly to the television screen where Trump is giving his “What do you have to lose?” speech to “the African Americans” on the campaign trail. Clearly aggravated she says, “You don’t know how we live.” The harsh reality is that many of us have no idea how many families like the Raineys deal with their day-to-day reality, but “Quest” offers a gritty but welcoming glimpse.
In 2016, “Quest” won a $100,000 MacArthur grant that went toward post-production.“Quest” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Competition.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami