Video & Filmmaking

First-Time Director Jonathan Olshefski on Creating a Feature-Length Documentary

June 19, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Quest, a feature-length documentary which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, follows ten years in the life of a family in North Philadelphia. First-time director Jonathan Olshefski began documenting Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife, Christina (known as “Ma” to family and neighbors alike), in 2007, using still photos, but chose to shoot video to create a more nuanced portrayal. “I wanted to make a quiet portrait of a family in north Philadelphia,” says Olshefski. “You hear about it in the news when something bad happens, confirming these stereotypes that this place is scary or depressing, contrary to what I experienced.” That he succeeded is due in part to the hours he spent working alone with just a camera and a mic, and to the collaboration of the Raineys. “They took a risk letting me in,” he says.

His efforts to portray “quiet, everyday life stuff” were almost derailed in 2013 when PJ, the Raineys’ daughter, then 13, was struck in the head by a stray bullet, and lost an eye. But he continued following the family for three years after the crisis, capturing the family’s return to normalcy and PJ’s journey to becoming, in Olshefski’s words, “a self-possessed young woman.” Olshefski says he strove to let the Raineys speak for themselves. “They wouldn’t define themselves as victims of gun violence, but as a family that loves each other.”

Olshefski first met the Raineys in 2007. A graduate of Temple University, he was working in construction, “doing art on the side,” and exploring North Philly with his camera. He also started leading a photo workshop at a local community center. One day a student introduced him to Quest Rainey, who was running a recording studio, Everquest, out of his home. Olshefski was immediately drawn to the community of musicians who recorded, performed and hung out in the studio. Rainey invited Olshefski back to make photos of the musicians. “We just connected,” Olshefski says. Rainey had a day job delivering store circulars, but his studio was his passion. Olshefski says it was “parallel to what I was doing—doing art stuff on the side, but working construction.” He decided to photograph the two sides of Rainey’s life. He would spend nights on Rainey’s couch and join him on his early-morning paper route.

Olshefski soon realized he wanted to capture video and sound. “I love still photography, but one thing I don’t think it does really well is amplify the voices of the subjects,” he says. “The essence of the medium is about the skills of the photographer and the light and the look, rather than what the subject has to say and how they think.”

© Carina Romano

Jonathan Olshefski shot on his own for years. With help from the IFP Documentary Lab, he landed a grant he used to bring in a producer and editor. Together they cut a trailer which earned a MacArthur grant to finish the film and a deal to air it on PBS. © Carina Romano

By the end of 2007, he had made a short film, but felt it was incomplete. “I think I was beginning to realize the essence of the story wasn’t the job/studio parallel. It was the relationships, the family: That was what I was blown away by.” He began capturing the family’s routine moments, from making breakfast to taking PJ to school. By then, the country was heading toward the 2008 Presidential election, and he thought it would be interesting to show the historic event from the Raineys’ point of view. And after that, he continued shooting.

Though Olshefski had shot video before, he had never attempted a documentary, and he made mistakes. “As I transitioned from photo to film, I didn’t know what the main medium was,” he says. If he saw something visually interesting while he was shooting video, he would grab his still camera; in reviewing his footage later, he realized he missed crucial moments in a narrative. He started out shooting with a Panasonic DVX, which worked well in low light. When he switched to a higher-res Sony EX1, he experimented with camera movement—too much. With time, he learned to be patient: “I didn’t always have to be moving the camera.” After DSLRs added video, he switched to a Canon 5D Mark II, and found the DSLR both familiar and “really discreet.” Most of the material in Quest was shot on the 5D Mark II or a 5D Mark III he purchased later.

He shot handheld or with a monopod rather than a rig. “The way it works is that it’s boring for seven hours and then there are 15 minutes you have to be ready for, and with a rig you can’t run and gun,” he says. He recorded sound using a shotgun mic, and over the years used a Zoom H4N, a Zoom H6 and Marantz audio recorders.

Olshefski couldn’t afford an audio engineer or cameraperson, but he feels that working alone added to the film’s intimacy. The time he might have spent communicating with a sound technician, he says, “I was spending just engaging with the Raineys as a friend and as a human and hanging out.”

And when the family was plunged into crises, Olshefski says, “It didn’t make sense to have another [crew] person in the room during these really personal, intimate times.”

© Jonathan Olshefski

Quest Rainey, left, and Ma Rainey, center, with PJ and grandson Isaiah. Although punctuated with difficult events, Olshefski’s film follows the family’s routine and focuses “on these universal moments—a mother and father concerned for their son and daughter, people working and living out a creative passion,” he says. © Jonathan Olshefski

The first crisis came six years into the project, when the Raineys’ son, William, was diagnosed with cancer. While he began treatment, his girlfriend was working, so Quest and Ma Rainey cared for William’s infant son.

Then PJ was shot. In scenes of the Raineys in the hospital,  “You see their mettle being tested in a way you don’t in everyday routines I captured,” says Olshefski, who has known PJ since she was 6. “On the one hand you’re celebrating she survived, but she has to deal with the loss of her eye. It was very complicated emotionally for everybody.” When PJ came home from the hospital, well wishers commented on her bandaged face: “People were saying, ‘You’re still pretty.’” PJ withdrew to her room. Olshefski says, “I became aware of being there with a camera. I said, ‘Do you need me to hit the road?’ and she said, ‘No, I know you.’ I’ll never forget it.”

Through the years that he shot footage, he screened versions of the film at local venues. “I wanted to be a part of this community and make this for the community,” he says. Olshefski, who is white, acknowledges that he follows a history of white outsiders making stories about black communities. “It can be damaging,” he notes. From the start, he says, “my approach wasn’t to go in like a tourist and take those photos and show them to my friends somewhere else. I wanted to take those photos in the community for the community.”

He began thinking about bringing the Raineys’ story to a wider audience in 2014, after he applied for, and was accepted to, the IFP Documentary Lab. By then, he had been puzzling out how he could edit more than 300 hours of footage into a film, and was hoping the lab might provide a grant. Instead, it offered nine months of mentoring for first-time filmmakers. The other filmmakers arrived at the lab with their producers or editors; Olshefski brought Quest Rainey.

After reviewing Olshefski’s footage, lab participants said he had the makings of a compelling film, but told him that in order to realize its potential, he would need to work with experienced documentary filmmakers and get funding. The problem, Olshefski says, was that he didn’t know people in the film world.

IFP mentors connected him with Cinereach, the nonprofit film foundation and production studio, which gave him a grant of $35,000. Olshefski says he wanted to use the money to hire an editor, “But they said no, this is for you to build a team, make a work sample, and go after [more] funding.” On the advice of Cinereach, he teamed with producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, who has worked on several social-issue documentaries. Gordon, who is African American, “challenged me in ways that I appreciated,” Olshefski says. “She said: If we treat the material right, it could be good at disrupting stereotypes and if we don’t, we could reinforce stereotypes.” Gordon also had contacts which proved invaluable when it came to identifying funders and potential distributors.

Olshefski also hired Lindsay Utz, who had edited the 2012 feature-length documentary Bully, about kids tormented by their classmates, and other documentaries. A year after they began collaborating, Olshefski, Gordon and Utz had made a 15-minute trailer, and landed a MacArthur grant and a deal to air the film on PBS’s documentary series “POV.” Olshefski shot more footage last year. The finished film is bookended by the election of Barack Obama and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

Since its Sundance premier, Quest has won the Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Festival in Durham, North Carolina. When it was shown at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, the festival selected the Raineys as recipients of the 2017 Truth Life Fund, which benefits subjects of documentaries. Quest, Christina and PJ Rainey have attended all the screenings, and participated in Q&As.

Olshefski and Gordon are now looking for venues, including organizations that address gun violence and economic inequality, that will show the film and host discussions. Olshefski would also like to reach policy makers and use the film as a way to broaden the understanding of communities not often portrayed positively. “We focus on these universal moments—a mother and father concerned for their son and daughter, people working and living out a creative passion,” he says. Whatever a viewer’s circumstance, he says, “There are moments you’ll see yourself in.”

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