‘Quest:’ A portrait of an American family

By Dominique Smack Tillman

Growing up at the intersection of 32nd and Norris streets was anything but ordinary. My neighborhood streets were usually crowded with block parties, loud music, and kids.

These streets were the same blocks where I heard the ringing of shots and mothers crying as gun violence claimed the lives of innocent youth. It was anything but the typical American story, but it was what I identified as home.

I suppose that’s why the film documentary “Quest” moved me in a way that I hadn’t expected. After watching this documentary on Jan. 27 at The Media Fellowship House, I was overcome with strong emotions as I absorbed the story of the Rainey family’s journey dealing with healing, hope, love and music.

Film director, Jonathan Olshefski, said the film took nearly a decade to cultivate. Olshefski tells intimate stories that honor the complexity of his subjects by employing a production process that emphasizes collaboration, dialogue, and relationship.

This unique way of storytelling is used to amplify their voices and reflect their points of view in an artful way. Olshefski does a great job capturing the intense and real time story of the Rainey family, and it helped me to form a greater appreciation for the neighborhood I always called home.

In short, I felt like I was a part of this family’s story. The film begins with a glimpse of the nuptials of Chris and Christina Rainey and then moves into the life that the two have built with one another.

As the storyline unfolds, other characters are introduced with their own personal stories to tell.

A look into the everyday life of Christina Rainey, referred to in the film as Ma Rainey, shows her rising as the matriarch of the family.

In addition to her characteristics of strength and resilience, the film also captures the strong personalities of other characters, such as Christopher “Quest”

Rainey’s hopefulness and compassion in challenging situations, or Patricia Rainey who had to rise up from her circumstances and bring normalcy back into her teenage life.

The film does an excellent job showing the struggles of a typical mother in the North Philadelphia neighborhood fighting for refuge in a modernday war zone.

As the story unfolds, tragedy strikes the family in several ways when Ma Rainey’s oldest son, William, a single parent, is diagnosed with cancer while trying to balance the everyday life of raising his son.

The film demonstrates how the Rainey family rises up to face challenges and problems in a community where divorce is prevalent and single-parent homes are far too common.

After the film introduces Patricia Rainey, the youngest child of Chris and Ma Rainey, the film transitions to tell the narrative from the child’s eyes.

The bond between Chris and PJ through music and basketball could be vividly felt through the visual interpretation of the documentary: the short walks to the bus stop, the intimate conversations, and the love between the two all strongly represent the beauty of father- daughter relationships. When PJ Rainey is struck by a stray bullet while playing basketball at a local playground, the film takes on a dimmer tone. “Daddy, I’m sorry for getting shot,” PJ said.

This powerful statement caused sympathy and remorse to fall over the audience. The unfortunate incident displays how the Rainey family deals with such a tragedy in a community where little is being done about the widespread gun violence.

However, it doesn’t prevent the outpouring of love and support from the community as they collectively fight to make the streets a safer place.

Throughout the nearly twohour documentary, the effects of music in the community are astounding as the film takes a more light-hearted tone.

“Quest” reveals how the Rainey family fills empty voids and the need for unity by building a personal recording studio in the family’s basement. The way the music’s rigid beats and raw lyrics moves through those basement walls brought back vivid memories of how I personally used music to escape from the outside world some days.

The film shows how Quest Studios provides local rappers and songwriters a safe haven to come together to get away from the violence and drugs to make music.

The studio is a space to create original music and content while fighting against becoming another street statistic. Local rappers Price, Ron Geez, and Harry, are among the individuals that found an escape from North Philly streets in Quest Studios.

Today, you can find the Quest family continuously hosting their Freestyle Friday rap battles in Quest Studios every first Friday of the month. As for PJ, she has adjusted miraculously and has a heavy hand in music producing beats with her father and following the family’s tradition for the love of music.

In a Live Q&A immediately following the screening, Olshefski, PJ, and Christopher Rainey stood and answered questions about how the family dealt with the different experiences that played into compiling this intimate and raw story.

Olshefski discussed the bond that was developed between himself and the Rainey family over the decade long process and how his different skills and styles played into showing the family’s very intimate story.

“Quest” was shot in a unique cinematic style that is ideal for documentary style filmmaking and stresses unbiased realism. This style of shooting helped to bring a rawness to the screen that was welcomed by the audience as evidenced by moments of shared laughter and sinister silences.

Moreover, I greatly related to this story because it was an intimate journey that hit so close to home. Familiar settings, feelings, and emotions arose on the screen and festered inside of me as I took in this powerful and intimate portrait of one American family’s journey.

Needless to say, “Quest” does a brilliant job shedding light on the everyday American story of love, life and music.

The Media Fellowship House, located on Jackson Street in Media, hosts a variety of events. “Quest” was just one of many Sundance Film Festival and independent film documentaries shown at this location. Upcoming events can be found at mediafellowshiphouse.org.

Contact Dominique Smack at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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