Meet the North Philly Family Featured in the Must-See Documentary “Quest”
Filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski followed the Raineys for nearly 10 years. The result is a heart-rending masterpiece that debuts at the Ritz this Friday.
That’s roughly how long cameras followed the Raineys, a North Philly family that is at once both familiar and extraordinary in Quest, a documentary film debuting at the Ritz on Friday.
The remarkable biopic follows the Raineys as they grow, hurt, heal, love, fight, teach and learn, beginning with the start of Obama’s presidency and ending shortly after Trump’s election. Director Jon Olshefski uses the political landscape to frame a delicate glimpse into the life of a family navigating issues of race, class, gun violence, child-rearing, marriage, and neighborhood strife.
Perhaps most important, Quest allows North Philly to shape its own narrative – an opportunity that, as the family will tell you, is seldom afforded to its residents, who are far more often visited by the mainstream media for stories of turmoil and bloodshed.
The documentary has racked up awards and rave reviews at film festivals around the country. Now it returns home.
I sat down with three people behind the project: Olshefski, a Temple grad; Christopher “Quest” Rainey, the film’s namesake and a caring father who runs North Philly’s EverQuest Recordings studio; and Patricia “PJ” Rainey, the resilient daughter of Quest and Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey.
So how did you find each other?
Olshefski: In 2005, I started teaching a photography class to adults in [North Philly]. In spring of 2006, one of my students was like, “My brother runs a hip-hop studio out of his house, if you want to meet him.” So we walked down the street and knocked on the door, and Quest opens up and sees me.
Quest: First of all, I see a white guy in my neighborhood. Our neighborhood really hasn’t been gentrified or anything like that yet – mostly just black people live there. So when somebody of another race knocks on your door, you assume it’s a bank collector or a cop or something. But when I saw Jonathan, I thought, “What does this guy want?”
To make a long story short, he came in, met some of the guys at the studio, and that’s pretty much how we started. He brought a visual effect to the studio. We didn’t have any way to add pictures to CDs, so Jonathan brought that flair to the studio. And the studio was basically there to help the guys [in the neighborhood] – to give them something to do and stop them from hanging on the corners.
I want to come back to the studio. But first, Jon, was attending Temple your introduction to North Philly?
Olshefski: I grew up in Pittsburgh but moved to Philly in 2000 to go to Temple, and I fell in love with the city. I wanted to make positive contributions to the city. When I met these guys, I was working construction and doing art stuff on the side. I heard about [Quest’s] paper route and studio, and I saw myself in that. It started out with … a photo essay of the working life versus the creative life. And that’s how things got started – I was sleeping over at the house and sleeping at the studio. I would get up at 3 in the morning, jump on the paper route and do this photo thing for about a year and a half.
I wanted to transition from a still photo project to a documentary film to see the motion and hear the studio. So after a year and a half, I was just like, “Let’s do a short little documentary.” And it went on longer than we thought.
Why did you want to focus on North Philly? What did you want people to see about the neighborhood?
Quest: We want people to see North Philly besides the violence they show on the news.
You know, we’ve been in the spotlight in our lives, but this is something totally different for us. It’s wonderful. Scary at the same time, but wonderful. We’ve been to so many different places around the United States now to show off our film. To see different communities that have nothing in common with ours relate to our situation and understand what’s going on … it opens their eyes. When this project first started, I would hear so many bad stories about North Philly, like people would tell us how terrified they were of North Philly. And I would sit there with a puzzled look on my face. It was just horrifying stories, but when they see the movie, it’s like “Oh my god.” Really, it was nothing like they thought at all. We’re really glad about that.
Olshefski: For me, making films is about making friends. It’s a way to connect. My experience in the neighborhood was in this beautiful place where people take care of each other. [The film] started with, “Hey, how can I contribute and hang out with people?” And then it took us to a much like deeper level of collaborating.
Quest: He’s definitely family. We call him Peter Parker. This was his nickname for us at the studio.
OK, let’s return the studio. Music has such a strong presence in this film. What kind of role does the studio play in this neighborhood and in the documentary ?
Quest: The studio is there to promote friendship. People come from all walks of life. From everywhere. Gang signs or squads, your crusty crooks and your CB4 mobsters or whatever – you know when these guys hit the studio, everybody is just EverQuest, focusing on helping each other. Having conversations. Building pow-wows. Someone might come there, and instead of rapping they might talk about a problem they have, and next thing you know we trying to focus on the person’s problem. So it’s really a healing place.
And my daughter, PJ, her generation is coming up now. She has to school me on the latest hip hop and the world of music. She’s my ears to the street – plus an artist herself. She’s real particular about her music. That makes a difference when she goes to do projects with the other guys, and they see how delicate she is with her own projects – they want to be a part of what she is doing, because she puts her whole heart into it. That’s the next generation right there – 23P. That’s her rap name on SoundCloud.
PJ, what was it like for you to see the film? It’s so intimate for all of you, but you’re the one growing up on camera. What was it like to see yourself on the big screen?
PJ: When I first saw it, the film made me reminiscence. Little certain facial reactions that I made – they reminded me of the stuff that I was thinking at that time.
But now I just feel like I am in a different place. That was where I was before, and there have been so many changes since the film. It changed my life in a good way. It made me think differently from other people. And for other people who see the film, I hope they see empathy. Because that’s something this world doesn’t have. I mean it does have it, but it’s rare, you know? Especially in this generation.
In the beginning of the film, Quest and PJ talk about PJ’s curfew and how you worry for her safety at night. A few scenes later, PJ is struck by a stray bullet, and she loses her eye. Both of these scenes convey different types of trauma. One type comes from simply being surrounded by violence, and the other is a more direct result of that violence. How did this trauma affect you?
PJ: After [the shooting] – and this wasn’t shown in the film – I started to think I was a part of the environment. But with the support of my family and with the movie, it felt like I could go forward instead of just staying in one spot. I was a product of the environment. I was close-minded. I thought was funny to see other people, like disabled people, and then my situation happened, and I understood what they were going through. And I just hope other people get that from the movie.
Politicians, if they see the movie, will see neighborhoods that are hurting like North Philadelphia from like the lack of constructive things for kids to do. I hope that politicians change that. It’s more than just music. Yeah, we got a studio. We do it to help the community. But there’s other stuff, and I feel like people my age have a certain variety of careers, with the area we live in and the stuff that they feed us. If I came from somewhere else, I’d probably know how to get more money.
Quest: We need recreation centers. We need basketball courts. Business schools. After-school programs, that teach you how to save up, start careers, pay bills. They give us things to keep us quiet. I think in general schools definitely need something else.
There’s a scene, after the shooting, when someone at a CeaseFire PA Rally after talks about how reporters and politicians only come to North Philly for “soundbites.” Can you talk about this?
Quest: That’s how it happened when PJ got shot. A tragedy happened. People popped up, said “We promise you this. We promise you that.” Someone promised PJ a trip to Disney World. So many things were thrown at us at the time. We were so confused about which way we should go for help for PJ. And my wife and I really sat back and said, “Maybe we should see how she recovers and gets herself back together.” And I asked Jon, “Could you put this in the film?’ And he was, as a friend, reluctant – because do you really want that part of your life out there?
I felt it would help. It’s therapeutic for all of us because to see something traumatic like that and watch her recover … most people, once they recover, they don’t want to look back on that part of their lives. But I think that makes you a stronger person. You see where you came from and where you are now. We didn’t want PJ to be the poster child for getting shot – we wanted this movie to be more like a stepping stone in our lives, to help her and to help us overcome what happened. Other people had other intentions in mind. That’s what we’re trying to get away from. We’re trying to let people know North Philly is alive. We’re breathing. We’re well.
This is a decade of your life compressed into an hour and 45 minutes. Are there any parts of of your life that we missed that you wish were included? And Jon, how did you decide what to do include and what to leave out?
Quest: The 22 puppies.
The 22 puppies?
Quest: Yeah, we had a bunch of puppies at the time. Our dog, C-Note, had back-to-back litters.
Olshefski: Yeah, there’s even a scene where C-Note is … running down after the truck [on a paper route] and [Quest is] yelling “Go home! Go home!” There’s so many fun little moments, but in terms of narrative efficiency, you just want to make the film really tight and really accessible, and you want to leave people wanting more. But there’s a lot [that’s not included]. Quest mentioned getting rescued from a fire when he was two years old by kids from the neighborhood who went and jumped over a roof and saved his life.
There’s all these little stories. There’s a lot of stuff that I think is beautiful, but in terms of telling the story, everything has to add up, and you look at the scenes that do three or four things at once. You’re looking for moments that do a lot of work and prioritizing that over something that’s maybe not just cute but also shows strength or vulnerability or shows anger. That was difficult.
Also, I was looking for those quiet moments, I did not want to have a sensationalized film. For me, it was about crafting a film to create connection. We live in a society that is afraid of each other. I wanted to tell the story in a way that invites the viewer – whether you’re a neighbor of North Philly, some random rich guy in Park City, Utah, some rural farmer – you can see yourself in the film. Those are the moments we’re looking for.