As the bass drum thumping rattles through the basement window, Quest allows neighbors and talent to wax the hip hop poetic in the neon lights of his independent studio. Reverberating through the twilight of North Philadelphia, there is passion vented through the groove, an escape through confidence of the verse. Quest's Freestyle Fridays is a communal cypher that reveals the artistic talents of North Philly residents and keeps them occupied, occupied from the uncertainty and isolation that rings in combat with the groove between the line of brick buildings and weathered walls. There are many things Quest, or Christopher Rainey, needs to escape from, the most pertinent being a harsh reality of social disconnect. But he is not alone. He has his family, which includes his ironclad wife, Ma Quest or Christine, and his daughter, PJ, who face the same definitive reality. For ten years, Jonathan Olshefski shot and followed the Rainey family, originally planning on a photography series...which became a film short...which ultimately became the feature film, Quest. Ten years of perseverance coupled with ten years of chronic incertitude appear before us, the curious and naive spectator.
Intimately observational, this whole film exudes an unbroken trust between filmmaker and subject. As the story loosely flows through some meandering passage of time, we move through the tightly packed rooms and hover among revealing conversations, revelations, and conflicts. Yet, Quest carries himself with a composure that goes directly against the plight and violence that wants to swallow this almost forgotten part of a historical city. Consequently, he regards the camera, or disregards the camera, with a naturalness, almost compelling the audience to just observe and witness how he lives. His wife and daughter never seem to carry resentment.
Producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon explained that focusing on one family and their experiences provides a more graspable ledge for others to understand. Rather than focus on an issue at large, or paint a more grand and complex panorama of many families, Quest and its specificity highlights an easy relativity that also proves to be an intersection of many issues. For many of us who are not from this environment, ignorant to the struggle but also normalcy the Rainey family uphold, we get to sympathize as a first step. Subsequently, when the family confronts issues familiar to them and foreign to us, we use that sympathy as a means of comprehension, as a means of erasing an ignorance.
Many inspiring and revelatory events matriculate on the screen for us. At one point, when the whole neighborhood block comes together to help PJ after an arbitrary but not unreasonable tragedy, the one deduction possible for, again, the naive spectator is that these people not only want a reinforced community, but they want to be acknowledged as such. Any lack of validation will continue to render dangerous and frightful consequences as families seek help from unnecessary decay due to negligence. During a protest against violence, one beautifully vociferous man, complete with a rasp of searing indictment, calls out the politicians who only make their rounds down their streets as a means of securing a vote, later calling out celebrities like Jay-Z, Rihanna, and Beyonce, for their social detachment. Yet, in regards to politics, Olshefski and the final edit may or may not have slyly invoked a much more profound commentary on the nature of government as a dislocated institution 'for the people.'
Without free-falling into the void of political debate, Quest takes place largely during both Obama's terms in office. Although we see our subjects relating to the president in a manner they never had before, it has to be said that the conflict they face (and they face a lot) is a reminder that local politics can only really sculpt change. Though, it must also be said that at the end of the film, which is also the end of Obama's tenure, there is a sense that the perseverance exhibited by the family thus far will be needed more so with things to come: if Obama could not change much, a man whose mere existence alienates people of color induces palpitations and anger.
But let us return to acknowledgement. These are good people we are watching, facing problems all families face, but the filmmakers challenge us with forgoing the act of othering, the act of placing their existence too far out of reach that we only sit idly to look on at the troubles and complexities we may never face. This is not to say that the film means to simplify differences in human experiences. Rather, think of it not as simplifying but a reassured sense of humanizing. An explicit act of acknowledgement that the Rainey family is just that is our first step closer to connectedness and our first step away from exoticizing. Quest effortlessly paints a small but amazingly detailed portrait of an American family resisting temptation of the boisterous tangent produced by relentless politicizing.
Compression of ten years is a phenomenal feat, though not without its flaws. There is another family member, William, who faces almost insurmountable problems of his own, that is treated almost (read: almost) as an afterthought, though in the end a nice character arc is produced. Nevertheless, we watch this family grow, we are allowed to watch their exchanges and most vulnerable dynamics. Quest and Ma Quest form an emotionally muscular bond, despite obstacles that appear before them. And PJ, who over the course of the film confronts terrible calamities and intriguing awakenings, remains true to who she is. And with a careful but confident lens, we look on not as if we are looking at some museum piece from a world wholly unfamiliar. No, we look on through a lens motivated by an original friendship that blossomed a decade ago. Through the eyes of Olshefski, there is maybe an effervescent connection of friendship. Or, at the very least, a hope of which our sympathetic understanding can change perception and discourse. Thought, to some extent, no matter what we think in the theatre, Quest will always hold those Freestyle Fridays, sonically expounding his passion with providing a funky foundation to the personal expressions of North Philly rappers.