Quest director Jonathan Olshefski spent nine years befriending and filming the Raineys, beginning at the dawn of the Obama presidency, and ending with the ascendancy of Trump; inauspicious bookends marking a tumultuous decade.
The finished documentary is a meditative study in the everyday realities of poverty, gun crime, and racism, whilst offering a moving portrayal of people united by love and affection. Christine’a (“Ma”) Rainey and her husband Christopher (“Quest”) live in North Philadelphia, in a neighbourhood riddled by bullets; a left-behind, low-income district occupied by the Raineys and their almost entirely African-American neighbours. Both Christine’a and Christopher are community stalwarts: she works at a local domestic violence shelter, while he runs a music recording studio for the local disenfranchised youth, alongside his regular job of delivering newspapers. Together, they make for an awesome team, and it’s their bond which seals everything else together, both at home and in the wider community. They suffer hardship and strife, but their love endures throughout.
As Quest opens, Christine’a’s older son, William, begins treatment for cancer, and she’s helping care for his infant son, Isaiah. Later, Christine’a and Christopher’s adolescent daughter Patricia (“P.J.”) is hit by a stray bullet in the street, losing an eye. It is these two incidents, and particularly the shooting of P.J. and her survival and calm amongst the turmoil of her experience, which shows the level of intimacy that Olshefski has with the Raineys. Given access to the most private moments in hospital, at home, in the immediate aftermath, Olshefski’s camera always captures the family with unsentimental tenderness and genuine empathy. This young girl’s near-death and the psychological affect of her injuries, show that violence, and its historical legacy in underprivileged America, has a daily impact.
It’s the juxtaposition of this, amongst more tender moments, like Christine’a braiding P.J.’s hair on their stoop, that provoke such a deep emotional response to the film and really gets to the heart of the story. There may be guns outside, but in this family, love provides a shield against the hard world beyond the front door. This isn’t a story about wealth, but in those moments, where there is harmony in family and community, there is a richness based on love. With few escapes from the adversity that faces this family, they find hope from each other’s support.
Olshefski has made very considered choices about which of the 300 hours of footage he shot to use, and alongside editor Lindsay Utz, has crafted a deeply sensitive and intimate film which offers moving insights into this family’s struggle to survive. Amongst this is the sociopolitical backdrop of this low-income neighbourhood of north Philly, and the effect of poverty and gun crime on its local residents. Producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon initially had reticence about the project when she was approached to be involved, because Olshefski is white, and Quest is solely focused on an African-American family; she watched the early footage with a very critical eye. But Schmidt Gordon guided Olshefski on some of his blind spots, concluding that “the story we were telling was the same”, so one hopes that her input challenged his ‘white gaze’ bias.
Olshefski addresses this directly himself too. “I am very aware of the long history of privileged filmmakers going into communities that are not their own to take stories and craft them for other audiences outsides of the community. This can be an incredibly destructive process and marginalise the place and its people, especially when it is a place that was already marginalised.” With a right wing, White Supremacist-supporting President now in the White House, having succeeded America’s first black President, this film has even more impact. For the Raineys, and families like them, life may be about to get much harder indeed.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack