Doc Stars of the Month: Christopher 'Quest' and Christine'a 'Ma Quest' Rainey, Jonathan Olshefski's 'Quest'
Premiering at Sundance—and subsequently going on to win top honors at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, among other high-caliber fests, and an IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund grant—is Jonathan Olshefski's Quest, a gorgeous portrait of a loving American family and their close-knit community. Filmed over an astonishing ten years, the doc follows Christopher "Quest" Rainey and his longtime wife, Christine'a, aka "Ma Quest," as they work hard, raise their kids right—and also find time to run a home music studio that simultaneously serves as a sanctuary in their hardscrabble North Philadelphia neighborhood.
I reached out to the Raineys the week before the film's Los Angeles premiere. Fortunately, they were able to break from their hectic press schedules to speak with Documentary about living their lives on camera for ten years; coping with racist, inner-city stereotypes; and enduring the grim reality of the current US president.
How did you two meet Jonathan, and what convinced you to let a first-time feature filmmaker—and a white guy, albeit a Philadelphian—into your lives for an entire decade?
Christine'a "Ma Quest" Rainey: Well, we didn't exactly agree to a ten-year thing. Originally, when we started, my brother-in-law had a class Jonathan was teaching. He told my husband that he was bringing Jonathan over.
Christopher "Quest" Rainey: Jonathan was holding a photography class down the street. And my brother James Rainey asked Jonathan if he would like to visit my studio. So when my brother brought him to the house I looked out the peephole, and all I saw was this white kid standing there with a camera. First thing we thought was "Hey, is he a cop?" Because our neighborhood is predominantly black, it's kind of weird for people to be knocking on the door that time of the day.
But anyway, Jonathan and I had a talk and a conversation about the studio and things like that. And I asked if he wouldn't mind coming back, doing some footage, filming or actually just shooting still pictures of the guys at the studio, and he agreed. So when he came back, we just hit it off. After a while, even one of the guys from the studio gave him a nickname: Peter Parker. We give all the guys in our neighborhood nicknames. So the whole neighborhood knows Jonathan as Peter Parker.
And as far as letting him shoot for the 10 years, I think it was more of a friendship that allowed that process to happen. After a while we kind of forgot that the camera was there.
What was it that forged that friendship?
CMQR: Well, in the beginning they found out what they had in common: stuff like the Steelers and construction. It really was a friendship because there were a lot of moments that Jon was there with us—at funerals and parties—and he really became a friend before everything got really deep. He didn't make it hard for us. He was like a fly on the wall. He was so quiet we didn’t even know he was there.
I'm surprised you let Jonathan film so many intimate, life-or-death moments. Was there anything off limits?
CQR: I think it was more, like, when it came to privacy. We did ask him to stop the camera when we went to the bathroom, or got out of the bed in the morning and stuff like that because Jonathan actually would be here with us early in the morning, and would spend the night when I would go out on my job. He would tag along with me. But if we had any private issues, Jonathan had no problem turning the camera off and giving us that. Like I said, Jonathan definitely is a friend. I think that is why the project was able to go on for as long as it did. I don't think someone outside the family would get that many private moments.
You didn’t feel you had to put your foot down and tell him to stop filming?
CQR: No. We would discuss and really talk about things. It wasn't like he just pulled out his camera and decided to catch every intimate moment he could. Sometimes he would just hang out, and sometimes things wouldn’t even happen at all. He would just spend the whole day there just talking to us or hanging out. We would shoot some pool, play cards, or whatever the case may be. It wasn’t always a footage moment.
The film is a beautiful portrait of your family, but were there aspects you struggled with showing onscreen? Any scenes you wish had been cut—or hadn't been cut?
CMQR: There was a lot of stuff I wish he had put in there, but it was so much. We could fit our whole lot into all of that…
CQR: We might have a scene where—it was a beautiful scene where my daughters were singing to me. That didn't make the cut because there wasn't enough footage of my older daughters, where it would make sense to the public—and Jonathan noticed that. We all noticed that. But yeah, I am seeing where, if we could have had things better, we would have liked a paint job for the house. If we could have fixed up the kitchen at the time, we would have. You know, nobody really wants to show their house falling apart around them, but it really captured the true essence of what our lives were about.
That's interesting, because I didn't even notice the house. I think we, the audience, are so focused on you and your family that we don't really see your surroundings. Were you with Jonathan at all during the editing process?
CQR: No, actually he had an editor onboard, Lindsay Utz. And it is hard to be there, I guess, being a subject and watching somebody edit your life, because you had put in all the best in you possibly could have. I think it's better that we weren't there, where the story is being told a little bit better than the way we would tell it. We are not filmmakers, so when we first saw things happening along, it just felt more like home movies to us, rather than a filming process.
Did you get to see rough cuts or just the final film?
CMQR: Some rough cuts, and little small tidbits here and there. We really didn't have a problem with any of it.
CQR: It was several different versions of the film before it actually reached this level. It just started off as a small DIY project, actually, like for a school project, so to speak. And it just blew up. No one expected it to get this far or to be something like this. As the family and the subject of the film, we really appreciate that people will look into our lives like this and see something beautiful in it because, like I said, to us it was home movies. We were more or less concerned about where we came from. And it was more like, OK, we could look back on our lives and see how we progressed.
One of my favorite scenes is of the two of you watching Donald Trump's tone deaf, "What do you have to lose?" speech—[directed at African-American voters, but delivered to a predominantly white crowd, in a suburb of Lansing, Michigan, in which he says, "You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed…"] Ma Quest's response that Trump has no idea how urban residents live speaks to what, I think, the vast majority of us were thinking (and still think). Do these racist stereotypes about urban life anger you—or do you even care what the ignorant think?
CQR: When it comes to how people think about racism and people of color, you are always going to get as many stories as you possibly can. To be honest, as black people, we always live with the fear of racism, and how to dress and how to walk and how to eat. But in reality we are trying to break down those barriers ourselves—even when Donald Trump talks about how we live, or what he can do to make our lives better. When my wife said he has no idea, there was so much truth in what she said, and so much false-ism in what he said, it was ridiculous.
CMQR: Like you said, I don't even understand how he is the president—still the president. But hopefully our movie will show that we are nothing like how everybody depicts us. Our neighborhood is beautiful. And it just gets such a bad rep. So we are just trying to change that, and hopefully people see the beauty we know in Philadelphia. And I think that's what Jonathan was trying to capture. He would take his camera and he would run all over the neighborhood. It wasn't just our family that he kept an eye on.
He would go down and watch the drill teams, the block parties, the neighborhood leaders. Even people when they brought their cameras around for sound bites. He was just there in the background, just observing, and I think that's how he was able to tell such a great story.
Since we're on the subject of upending stereotypes, the film is notable for destroying quite a few. There's the white beat cop who comes to the rescue when tragedy strikes, the black cop who racially profiles Quest, the Ceasefire activist who preaches becoming one's own role model and calls out the likes of Jay Z and Rihanna…In the end it's not about black, white or blue but about community, of knowing one another as individuals, not as "officers" or "gang members." You two obviously figured this out early on, as your home music studio has long served as a North Philly sanctuary, but do you ever feel like you're fighting a losing game? I mean, systemic inequality forces people to look for easy answers—and guns and violence and naming an "enemy" are a quick means to power.
CMQR: Sometimes it does feel like a losing battle. But we get a lot of courage from a lot of positive people in our lives. At one point we were feeling kind of down, and we were considering shutting the studio down. And this is around the time Chris' mother passed away. And just before she passed away, she asked him to not shut the studio down. And if he had, we wouldn't be here having this conversation right now.
CQR: Yeah, that's got to be true. But it kind of chokes me up sometimes when I do think about that; she was on her deathbed and she really asked me, "Don't shut the studio down," because I really was going to shut that down. I didn't see any purpose anymore. I was going to sell the house and just move on. But she saw something more in what we were doing, even before this movie got made. So I really wish she was around to see what happened when Obama got into office. And even right now with Trump being in office. I can only imagine how my mother would react.
What are your hopes for the film? Do you see it changing outsiders' opinions?
CQR: My daughter Patricia wishes a lot of people would learn empathy. Because things that happen, tragedies that happen, we tend to overlook people or look past it without caring or understanding what’s going on. We all need to come together. We all need to understand that we all are family and friends at the end of the day. If a tragedy happens next door, we tend to help. If your house falls down, we will help you rebuild it. We will pick you up if you fall, feeling for you. That’s what the whole world should be, and that’s worth striving for.
What's been the reaction from North Philly after seeing the film?
CQR: Well, at first we were kind of nervous showing it in our own community because everybody in our neighborhood pretty much goes through the same thing. So it was more like, OK, what is our own community going to get out of the film? How would they judge us, as this being something of the norm to them? But in reality, when our neighborhood saw it they were happy and ecstatic, and they couldn't thank us enough for showing the film. And everybody got something out of it. And, of course, with Jonathan shooting in the neighborhood, people got to see themselves in this film in the background, so a lot of the community was just happy to see themselves as a part of the "quest," so to speak.
But has being in the spotlight affected your family, changed it in any way?
CQR: No, our children support us to the fullest. And thank goodness there is no one jealous of any situation that's going on, because they are not in the limelight, so to speak. It's not about that with us. We are a tightknit family, so everyone supports each other to the fullest.
So in closing, is there anything you'd like to discuss that I missed bringing up?
CQR: I just hope that when the press looks at this, they don't see just an average black family. I hope they see this as a family, an American family—like we are no different than anyone else, and we just want the world to understand that it's changing for the better. We might not have who we want in charge right now, but I think it's changing for the better. More people are coming out to be themselves instead of hiding behind these false walls that people put up, that make people feel like they have to be somebody that they are not.
So that's really what I hope, that we can talk about more in the future—people being able to express themselves fully and openly without someone getting mad because you are who you are, or you say what you said.
CMQR: Well, like my husband said, people don't understand what other people go through. And at my job [at a women’s shelter], we were taught not to treat people the same because everybody comes from a different walk of life. You can't look at this person and think that they are like that person just because they stay with each other. We are all different. We may breathe the same air and all, but when it comes to our souls we are all different. There is so much in that.
But working at a shelter, and seeing all the women go through a lot of stuff that they went through, it gave me the opportunity to count my blessings and thank God we are out of that.
Quest is currently screening in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia through First Run Features, and opens in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Baltimore in January.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Documentary and Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the international features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.