Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest is an empathy driven cinéma vérité documentary which charts ten years (2007 to 2016) in the life of the Raineys: an artistically driven, community activist orientated low-income family residing in North Central, Philadelphia.
The Rainey family’s days are rich, varied, and full of struggle. Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his wife Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey juggle caring for their children — particularly their daughter Patricia —with working long, arduous shifts in community based jobs which likely pay a tenth of what dispassionate corporations do. Christopher’s day begins at dusk on a newspaper route, which Olshefski captures from the back of a truck, covering North Philly’s diverse working class culture. When Christopher has the time, he can be found in his home-based music studio promoting local artists.
Christine’a works at a domestic abuse shelter. The camera quietly follows her as she cleans, does intake, and checks on residents. When she is off shift, her life is no easier — she tends to endless chores and cares for her early-20s son William and his newborn child. William is undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor, and doesn’t have the strength or resources to both work and parent a baby boy. His goal in life is that his child won’t “know struggle” like he does.
Quest closely portrays faces of America that are all too ignored. Christine’a’s countenance is a fascinating blend of sadness, toughness, tenderness, and thankfulness, each due to the overwhelming variety of obstacles and hidden joys, which Quest so skillfully blends as a tapestry of inner-city life. In one scene, Christine’a’s eyes twinkle when she talks about how Patricia was musically inclined even as a baby — “she had rhythm straight out of the door,” Christine’a jokes. In another scene, a tracking shot follows Christine’a’s walk home on a desolate side street after a night shift at the shelter, her eyes wary and filled with concern. She begins to talk about the burn scars which extend down her arms and legs from a basement fire (apparently precipitated by a heavy wind) when she was 18-years-old.
One can only wonder if the fire would have occurred if Christine’a’s basement infrastructure was appropriately safe, or if her burns could have been more thoroughly addressed with better medical attention. However, unlike most documentaries which cover inner-city life, Quest doesn’t argue these points away. Instead, the Rainey’s tell stories and muster up dignified emotional responses to their inequities. Their experiences are by far more affecting than familiar expository arguments or demographics, which reduce human beings to statistical outliers, as they force the audience to actively and emotionally consider relevant issues connected to inner-city living.
In one particularly poignant scene, Christine’a argues with a teenage Patricia in a small living-room space about how to allocate severely limited funds for school supplies. “I have to spent $87 every check because I have to pay a train pass,” Patricia protests, asking her mom for more money for clothes and supplies as so much money is already spent to commute to school. “I’m frustrated too,” Christine’a responds, “we’re not rich, and I’m sorry Oprah Winfrey is not here to give you the wardrobe you need.”
There are no easy solutions to life above the poverty line, and Olshefski has an acute emotional sensitivity that the national scene is not coming to help any time soon. Quest is peppered with images of Obama on television screens, t-shirts, barbershop windows and campaign slogans. But the depictions are all on smaller units which only take up a small portion of the film’s frame (President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign receives a single scene and an appropriately sharp dismissal).
Conversations about Obama or national celebrities are minimal compared to discussions of daily local conflict which dominate North Central, Philadelphia. “I appreciate the politicians coming out here for a soundbite, where they at now?” an anti-gun violence protestor huskily exclaims to a surrounding community at a basketball court. “Our first role models should be ourselves,” he concludes. His words are powerful, but what is even more resounding is the permanent sense of togetherness in the scene itself, and throughout Quest.
The community gets together at a local barber shop and reverentially observes as William has his head shaved in anticipation of his chemotherapy. Despite constant exhaustion, Christopher’s ebullient energy surges when he hosts “Freestyle Friday” — an open-call radio segment for youths who energetically perform freestyle rap about the neighborhood. This is the beauty of Quest — every downtrodden moment is juxtaposed with gentle spiritual uplift from a community that refuses to relegate itself to victims of circumstances.
Much can be made about Quest’s similarities to the award-winning Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994) another documentary that focuses on live in the inner-city, which is generally considered the gold standard of observational and experience based documentary filmmaking. But the distinctions between the two films is by far more important.
Hoop Dreams had the benefit of a nearly three hour run-time, which allowed for a more gradual progression in the maturation of its teenage protagonists. At a much slimmer 100 minutes, Quest charts William and Patricia’s growth through their respective struggles at an overly fast clip, with cuts quickly spanning large chunks of time, leaving out much of Patricia’s schooling or the stages of Williams’ recovery. Other interesting minor subjects, like Price — a talented local rapper struggling with drug addiction — receive a cursory treatment, which seems to be at the unnecessary sacrifice of a more detailed account of the kids’ growing pains amid poor economic conditions.
Having said that, this criticism is founded on the impression that Quest‘s subjects are so colorful and fascinating that they warrant even more coverage. Most notably, the Raineys — unlike basketball prospects Arthur Agee and William Gates in Hoop Dreams — do not pivot their lives on a departure from the inner-city toward chasing the American Dream on a national scale. Many low-income families simply continue to stay where they are, and Quest is an essential exploration into this reality.
“I love North Philly,” Christopher notes as he walks around his block where regulars play a lively game of hoops and an elderly storekeeper polishes a row of children’s bicycles-for-rent. The camera stays close to the ground, continuously following the Rainey family’s involvement in the community, from Christopher’s studio where he waxes righteously about local politics, to lively block parties crackling with dance and music over streets that need road and sidewalk repair, trees, and easier access to public school buses.
The Raineys express no stated intent to leave their community — the quest, so to speak, is to improve basic living conditions and access to opportunity in North Central, Philadelphia. Olshefski’s contribution to the cause is his beautiful ten-year compilation on lives neglected in America. In Quest, Olshefski has made a stirring call for the placement of low-income, inner-city families into our collective consciousness.