A Filmmaker's 'Quest' For A Quiet Family Portrait Is Pierced By Unforeseen Trauma
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The home hip-hop recording studio was the first thing that interested my guest, Jonathan Olshefski, in documenting the life of my other guest, Christopher Rainey - or Quest, as he's known in the neighborhood. Quest's studio is partly for kids in the neighborhood - and adults, who come in and record their raps in a safe space. Quest, his wife Christine'a, who's known as Ma Quest and their teenage daughter Patricia, who's called PJ, live in a working-class and poor African-American section of north Philadelphia, not far from our radio studio.
Once Olshefski started hanging out with Quest, he realized that Quest and his family could be the subject of a great feature-length documentary. So for nearly 10 years, Olshefski filmed the family's day-to-day life. That film is finally completed. It debuted this year at Sundance and has won prizes at several festivals. It's opened in a few cities, including Philadelphia, and will soon be opening in more.
Watching the film, it's clear the Raineys get a lot of respect in the neighborhood. During the course of the film, we see Quest and Christine'a get married. We see Quest in his studio, which is not a money-making enterprise. And we watch him doing his paid job delivering newspapers. His wife, during the course of the film, worked at a homeless shelter. We see 8-year-old PJ grow up. And we watch the whole family try to recover from a traumatic turn of events after PJ is hit by a stray bullet that takes out her eye. Here's Quest in a clip from the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "QUEST")
CHRISTOPHER RAINEY: When I seen my child bleeding from her face screaming, Daddy, I'm sorry for getting shot - what do you say to that? It's crazy. I hear these shots every day. Every day I go out there just to make sure it ain't nobody I know. I never thought I'd go out there for my child. It's like I just watched my life - my daughter's life change instantly. And probably maybe two more steps closer, she could've been dead. Probably a half an inch closer, it could've penetrated the back of her skull.
GROSS: We'll talk about that shooting a little later. Quest, Jonathan Olshefski - welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you both here.
Jonathan, I want to start with you. You met the Raineys through one of your students, who is Quest's brother. Do I have that right?
JONATHAN OLSHEFSKI: Correct.
GROSS: So what was it about the Raineys that made you think that they were worthy of a film and that the film would be worthy of following them around for nearly 10 years?
OLSHEFSKI: Well, I think it was a slow, incremental, you know, process. Quest - he'd invited me to come to the studio to take some pictures to promote, you know, their artists. And, you know, when I showed up just thinking it was going to be a one-off, you know, kind of, you know, photo shoot, I just really just was blown away by the studio - the community, the passion, just the DIY, grassroots sort of vibe to the place. And I was like, this is something I want to be a part of. Any way that I can contribute, you know - to this scene, to this community, you know - I'm just happy to do.
And so that led to me, you know, not just going the one day but then continuing to sort of follow up. And I just started to connect to Quest and to the guys. And I think, for me, what the root of this whole project was this relationship and this friendship that developed out of that. And so when I heard about Quest doing the paper route in addition to doing the studio, there was this working life versus creative life, you know, kind of dynamic going on. And I thought - hey, maybe it would be interesting to do a photo essay. And so that led to me sleeping over the house in the studio so I could get up at 3 in the morning to go out on a paper route. You know, through that I started to get to know the rest of the family - the kids, the other folks that were kind of in and out of the house.
And at that point, I just realized there's a lot of layers there. There's a lot of, like, warmth and beauty. And this is just something - a story from North Philly that I wanted to tell because the normal stories coming out of North Philly aren't sort of positive. And so I just sort of approached these guys like - hey, why don't we transition a little bit and make what we thought was going to be a short little documentary? So we started it in 2007. And then, you know, it ended up being something a bit different.
GROSS: So Quest, I want you to describe your neighborhood in North Philadelphia.
RAINEY: My neighborhood in North Philadelphia is very, very beautiful. It's quaint, and it's old. Like, all the buildings in North Philadelphia are, like, from the 1800s, even the building I live in. It was built in 1893. Some of the streets still have cobblestones or red brick down them. The neighbors are lovely. Like, all the older neighbors - they are so friendly when you go to talk to them, things like that.
You know, every neighborhood has its problems, too. So I don't want to sugarcoat and make it seem like North Philadelphia is the most beautiful place in the world, you know, to be in. But it is, like, with your eyes and physically and when you meet people. We have gardens, you know, playgrounds, like everyone else does. The kids come out. We have these fabulous block parties in Philadelphia. If you have never been to Philadelphia block party, that is the thing to do.
I'm part of the hip-hop scene, so to speak. So all the kids really - you know, I see all the kids relating. And when they come together it's really, you know, different because you see all the different schools in our neighborhoods. And kids come from so many different places. And we like to play basketball in North Philadelphia. It's a lot of basketball courts down there, so that's where the kids come hang out at. And they get conversating - you know, they rap and stuff like that. North Philadelphia's just beautiful. I can't say enough about North Philadelphia.
GROSS: And I'll say North Philadelphia also, from the outside, has a reputation for being, like, a lot of violence...
RAINEY: Right. That's the part that they always show. You know, I find it offensive. Every time I look on the news and turn the radio on or something - you know, when they say North Philadelphia, first thing you hear is something bad about North Philly.
GROSS: So Quest, one of the things you're famous for in the neighborhood is that you have a recording studio in your basement. And you do something called Freestyle Friday, which I think you're still doing?
RAINEY: Yes, every Friday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. I'll take two hours out of my day, have the kids come over for free and express themselves in my studio.
GROSS: So what happens in your studio on Freestyle Friday?
RAINEY: People come from all over - West Philly, South Philly, North Philly. They get together, the guys. They come, and they - I turn the microphones on, and I'll play random music, instrumental songs. And the guys that rap express themselves or freestyle or do poetry. And they communicate. And we talk, you know. It's not always just about rapping.
GROSS: How did you end up starting a studio?
RAINEY: Honestly, they started closing down all the libraries, the swimming pools, everything in the neighborhood. And we started noticing the kids started hanging on the corner. We have children ourselves, you know, that hang with these kids. So we were trying to get our kids something to do and, at the same time, get these kids off the corner. And my wife and I - we always were heavily into music, so we decided, hey, let's put a microphone, like a karaoke type thing, and let the kids come over and, you know, let them have fun 'cause we noticed that our kids liked to do that anyway. So we just told them, invite your friends. And they invited two, and they invited two. And so on and so on. It kind of grew.
GROSS: In the film, you say that the rapper you worked with with the most promise - somebody named Price...
GROSS: But he also has or had substance abuse problems.
GROSS: And so I want to play something you recorded with him. We asked you to bring something with you that you really liked, like a recording that you made. And so you brought "Rainey Dayz."
GROSS: Introduce it for us.
RAINEY: I made "Rainey Dayz" in 1998. And that song was made out of frustration - it was just an instrumental that I played on a piano - where my wife and I, we had an argument. She was still pregnant with our youngest child, Patricia. You know, we're facing a lot of issues that were kind of, like, driving us crazy. And, you know, I was just releasing myself in the homemade studio that I had in the house.
A few years later, Price came along. We met Price about 2004. And I let Price hear some of my instrumentals, and he was really attracted to the song "Rainey Dayz." And he decided to come up with some lyrics about our community and our neighborhood and what - you know, some things that's going on. And it really - they really connected. It was almost like the song that I made then was made for him, the lyrics that he has now.
GROSS: And rainy (ph) is spelled like your last name, Rainey.
RAINEY: Yes. Yes, I spelled it "Rainey Dayz," like, because the Rainey was my name, and I was actually talking about myself experiencing rainy days. And I put a Z on the end of the days because - like, dazed and confused, you know, so to speak - also saying, like, myself is very confused. That's what the title kind of means.
GROSS: OK. So this is "Rainey Dayz" with music by my guest Quest, Christopher Rainey. And the lyric is written and performed by Price.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINEY DAYZ")
PRICE: (Rapping) Kev (ph) Price - Rainey dayz, Everquest. It's Rainey dayz. It's Rainey dayz. Fairmount, it's Rainey dayz. It's Rainey dayz. North Philly, it's Rainey dayz. It's like we dead when broke, and we alive when we rich. Some of us can't survive without a hit or a puff of the spliff or a sip of the fifth. War summer's feeling sore from hunger tricking whoremongers. Fourty-four hundred fast around me, Cobras down me, stuck in the county. (Unintelligible) die before you owe or chasing the bread. We either incarcerated or dead. Tears are pain - we weep from having the freedom, for a way out of this poverty life we seeking, members from the family in the nursing home (ph)...
GROSS: So that's Rainey Dayz with music by my guest Quest Christopher Rainey, who's the subject, along with his wife and daughter, of the new documentary "Quest," which was made by Jonathan Olshefski, who is also with us. So, Quest, you worked with Price, who we just heard doing the rap on that. You worked with him a lot. You made, like, you say hundreds of records together.
RAINEY: Yes, yes.
GROSS: In the documentary about you, there's a scene in which you're having an argument. He wants another copy of a record that you made together. You've already given him five. He wants it again because he keeps losing it, and you're telling him that he's irresponsible, and he's telling you that he can't help it because he's an addict. So I want to play that scene from the film, and Price speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "QUEST")
PRICE: No matter what you believe, I'm over that. I'm a new man now. It's the truth. It's the truth. I had an addiction. I'm over that now. If I was the engineer and you was the artist and you kept messing up, I would give you that extra hand. I would lift out to you because I would know the history we have. I know all the time we spent in the studio recording, constantly going in. I remember that.
RAINEY: Exactly. Can I speak now? All right. I remember that, too. So why do you think I just want to throw that away like you do? If you're so careless and carefree about when I give you something that you don't have no respect for me when I say hold on to your [expletive], I'm not going to give you another copy. And then you still come here asking for another copy. What respect you've got for me? Because you know I'm a chump and I'm going to give it to you because you can't - because this is not the first time. It's not the second time. It's not the third time. It's not the fourth time. It's not the fifth time. It's not the sixth time.
PRICE: No, don't cross the sixth.
RAINEY: Come on now.
PRICE: It's the fifth.
RAINEY: Are you invested in me?
PRICE: I'm - yeah.
RAINEY: And I'm invested in you. I'm not letting my music go out like that no more.
PRICE: Listen, let's start over. Nobody made more albums than me.
PRICE: Nobody made more albums. Why wouldn't you want to do business with a [expletive] like that?
RAINEY: But what I'm trying to tell you is how many times I got to give you something before you...
PRICE: Last time.
RAINEY: Price, come on.
PRICE: I had an addiction. I had an addiction.
RAINEY: I had an addiction.
PRICE: Well, you know how the addiction is.
RAINEY: Exactly. I know exactly how it is.
PRICE: It's hard to deal with.
PRICE: I had an addiction. I wasn't the same way I was a couple months ago.
GROSS: OK. That was the rapper Price with my guest Quest - Christopher Rainey - who's one of the subjects of the new documentary "Quest." So what's your relationship with Price now? Are you still working together?
RAINEY: Actually, I just got off the phone with him before we got here. Yes, we are going to be doing something later on today actually. We're going to go to a studio. Yeah, Price and I are - our relationship is really tight. He's like my little brother, so to speak. You know, I've seen him go up and I've seen him go down and I've seen - and now he's back up, and we're going to try to keep him there. He's working. He's taking care of his kids. Price is a special friend to me. Like, out of everybody that goes through problems, I can relate to his problems because I had those same problems before, too.
GROSS: You mentioned that in the clip that we just heard. What was your issue?
RAINEY: I was - I was - I had two bad years of angel dust. I was smoking angel dust for two years. This was in the early '90s - '91, '92. It was a rough time in my life also. You know, actually I was going through a bad breakup and, you know, I was confused and hanging around with the wrong people. So, you know, it really - it took me two years. And what made me quit really - reality was a kid walked up to me that I knew. And I spoke to him. I was like, hey, what's going on? And he was like, get out my face. I don't mess with you anymore. You get high. You ain't nobody to me. And that hurt me. It broke me because I was so used to being respected by everybody in the neighborhood.
When this young kid said that to me, it literally changed my life. I just literally stopped that day. I called my brother J.C. and I said, J.C., I don't want to get high anymore. What should I do? He sent a cab for me and brought me up to his house and I just hung out with him for, like, six months, and, you know, that was the end of it. I got better.
GROSS: My guests are Quest and Jonathan Olshefski. Olshefski directed a new documentary about Quest and his family. The film is called "Quest." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christopher Rainey, who's known as Quest, and Jonathan Olshefski, who directed the new documentary film "Quest" about Quest and his family. They live in a working-class and poor neighborhood in north Philadelphia.
So you have a daughter who is in the film. How old is she now?
RAINEY: PJ is my youngest daughter. She is 18.
GROSS: And she was around 8 when the film starts.
RAINEY: Probably younger than that.
OLSHEFSKI: We first met probably about 7.
RAINEY: About 7, yeah.
GROSS: So while the documentary is being made, your daughter Patricia, PJ, is shot in the eye in the afternoon in the neighborhood. Tell us what you know about what happened.
RAINEY: Well, what I do know is that my daughter got shot by a stray bullet by, you know, guys arguing. From what I'm - from what the neighbor was telling us, they were arguing over a four wheeler that somebody stole. So, you know, these are guys out here, neighborhood, you know, the neighborhood thugs so to speak, just, you know, in the neighborhood. They actually didn't even live in our neighborhood. They were just down there, and they got into an argument with somebody in the close by vicinity. And that's how PJ got shot with a stray bullet. She was about a block and a half away. But when - like, to tell the whole story, when - I had actually came home from helping my cousin do a small job, odd job. And I went - I was in the house and I was taking a shower. My wife said she was going to run across the street and go to the store. And so my wife had actually left out. My wife was in the store across the street. I'm in the shower. I heard the pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. I said that was a lot of bullets. So I said, let me get out of the shower. I'm going to make sure my wife is OK because I know - I know she went to the store.
So I get out of the shower. As I'm going to - you know, go to the door, I put clothes on or whatever. She's coming in the door. She was like - I was like, did you hear those shots? She's like, yeah, I was right in the store. You know, I heard them. You know, they were like they went right by me, whatever the case may be. So not even two seconds later, we hear the banging on the door - bang, bang, bang. PJ's friend Portia (ph), she's banging on the door and she's screaming, PJ got shot. And now I wasn't all the way dressed. My wife - she had just came back from the store. We looking like ragtag. We just ran out the door. We didn't even turn around to look to see what was going on, to turn anything off. We just left. We just ran out. Where is she? We were running for her. We turn a corner. We - you know, my wife ran so fast she ran right past me. She ran right past the block 'cause we're thinking she's at the basketball court where we originally thought she would be.
By the time I got there, you know, I was - I got on the scene. They're standing there. I run up to PJ and I grab her. I'm asking her is she OK. And the first thing she says to me, Dad, I'm sorry for getting shot. And it kind of, like, messed me up, her that. Like, how are you sorry for being shot, you know? Like, you can't help that and, you know, I'm trying to see if she's OK. And once I pull the jacket from her eye, I see she's squinting hard, but you could still see the blood pouring out. So I put the jacket back on her eye.
That's when the officer pulls up. You know, I'm turning around and I'm saying, my daughter just got shot. At first, he was nonchalant. Like, what's going on here? Because it was just a bunch of people standing around from his point of view. And I was like, my daughter got shot, and he was like, where? What daughter, you know? Who, you know? And I turned her around and I showed him. And once I showed him, it's like he instantly jumped into action. He jumped in the car. I jumped in the back of the car with PJ. You know, he drove us to the hospital, like, in a blink of an eye. I really like to give my hat to Officer Mole (ph). I think the 22nd District. I really, you know, want to acknowledge him, you know, 17th and Montgomery police stations. Anyway, he got my daughter to the hospital. They stabilized her. And, you know, they told us that she was going to lose her eye right then and there, and, you know, they had to remove the bullet and so they transfer her to Children's Hospital.
GROSS: Do you know anything more about who shot her? Was anybody ever identified?
RAINEY: Well, the neighborhood speaks, so the neighborhood said, you know, OK, we think this person did it, we think that person did it. But, you know, as far as detectives and things like that, no one ever found out who did it. The guys that did - like, were involved in that, some of those guys came to the studio.
GROSS: You know, I know that there are some neighborhoods that have kind of like no snitching...
GROSS: ...Kind of - I shouldn't say policy, but like a no-snitching understanding. Like, you don't - you don't name names when it comes to somebody who did something, even if you know who that person is.
GROSS: Did that happen with your daughter's shooting, do you think?
RAINEY: See, I'm old school. I'm going to be honest with you. Like, I'm really old school. Like, the reason why I started letting these kids come because I feel as though I was the one that understood them. I was from the streets, too. I was the rough guy that carried guns and did dumb stuff back in the day, too. So I felt as though I would be able to communicate with these guys. You know, the ones that everyone was scared to talk to, the ones that nobody wanted to approach, those are the ones that I invite to the studio. And, you know, there was a lot of talk about, you know, we can get this person, or you want us to do something? And I'm like, for what? What is that going to solve? Or who are you going to get? And nobody knows who did what, you know? It was me now. I'm trying to keep the peace in the neighborhood.
So it really - you know, it took a toll on everybody, you know. And for my wife and I just to, you know, go through this is, like, my - you know, besides my daughter, you know, our nightmares are every day. You know, we walk around these people and then you start hearing people - when PJ was going to court over it because they locked somebody up for the car theft and they trying to say, did she know this person, or could this person have been the one that shot her? Because these guys were two blocks down and maybe she could have seen somebody, you know. And we even started getting little threats coming to the house where people would say, like, you guys better not go to court or, you know, if anybody goes to court, you know, something's going to happen to you guys.
And I made a clear post on Facebook. I'm not on the social media, Facebook, Instagram, all of them. We are not running from anybody. We're not hiding anything from anybody. If we knew who did it, you'd be locked up - point blank. You know, we have no problem turning you in. You know, so after that post that I made, it pretty much died down. You know, we didn't hear anything of it. Nobody talked about, everything, ever again, you know.
GROSS: How did you deal with fear that your daughter could be hurt again? And I know you were very worried about protecting her other eye. So were you afraid to have her out on the street playing basketball, walking with friends, doing anything. You can become very overprotective or very worried after something like that happens.
RAINEY: Yeah. We kind of did start becoming overprotective, but she kind of put a stop to that herself. You know, PJ - like, she's a go-getter. She's not going let anything hold her back. So when we became, you know, overprotective about things and trying to help her do things, she kind of pushed us away. I'm OK, Dad. I'm OK, Mom. I can go to school by myself. I can do this by myself, you know. But she's so independent, she doesn't care, you know. Like, I say, she's a go-getter and, you know, she's going to be fine. And I think we - you know, it was tragic.
GROSS: You could have lost her. Like you say in the film, if she had been, like, an inch away from where she was.
RAINEY: One step. Yeah, it was a .40 caliber that hit her in the eye. And that's fairly a large bullet. And that definitely - that would've killed anybody if it would've hit them. It's like, you know, God's intent that she's still here, and we just thank him every day.
GROSS: My guests are Quest and Jonathan Olshefski. Olshefski's new documentary film about Quest and his family is called "Quest." We'll talk more after a break. And Justin Chang will review the new Steven Spielberg film, "The Post." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Rapping) My pen mightier than the sword. My pen, my pen mightier than the sword. My pen, my pen mightier than the sword. My pen, my pen mightier than the sword. (Unintelligible) poverty, it's snowing for days, finding ways to escape, surviving the pain, (unintelligible) reading the inquire. In the hood, people get hit and survive. They known to survive this phase of life (unintelligible) hoping to see another day 'cause most of us die (ph).
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Christopher Quest Rainey and Jonathan Olshefski. Quest and his family are the subjects of Olshefski's new documentary called "Quest," which was filmed over the course of nearly 10 years. Quest, his wife, Christine'a Rainey, and their daughter Patricia, or PJ, live in a working-class and poor neighborhood in north Philadelphia. Quest has a hip-hop recording studio at home where kids and adults from the neighborhood come to record. During the course of the film, Christine'a worked at a homeless shelter. We watch PJ grow into a teenager as the film progresses. We also watch her recover after being shot on the street and losing an eye. We were talking about the shooting when we left off. My next question was for Olshefski.
What was the relationship between you about whether, like, what and if to record during that period? Because when something tragic like that happens, that can be pretty private. You don't necessarily want to be on camera when you're in that state of upset.
OLSHEFSKI: Yeah. You know, I remember when I first heard that PJ had gotten shot - and I was just devastated. I was actually in an airport in South Dakota, and my wife called me. And when I got back to Philadelphia, you know, Quest had been - you know, had gotten in touch with me. And I was just like, what can I do just as a friend, you know? How can I support you guys? What do you need? And, you know, from talking to Quest, he was like, grab your camera and come to the hospital; we want PJ to know how strong she is; we want to try to make something good come out of this tragic situation; we don't want this to happen to any other kids.
And so when I first got to the hospital, I was just happy that she was alive. She's breathing. She was still PJ Her personality was intact. She didn't have brain damage. And kind of, you know, as a filmmaker, you kind of just go into this zone of just trying to gather the material. And, you know, kind of, I think, the tragedy of kind of what happened to PJ didn't really strike me until she came home from the hospital. And, you know, you sort of see this scene play out, you know, in the film.
You know, she's on the stoop and neighbors are sort of trying to give her well wishes. And it makes her feel, you know, kind of self-conscious and embarrassed, and she goes into the house. And I also became self-conscious of me having the camera in those moments. And so after she had gone into that house, I'm filming her and her response to kind of the neighbors outside. And I was just like, well, what am I doing here? What does PJ want in this moment? And I put...
GROSS: Did you ask her?
OLSHEFSKI: Oh, I put the camera down. I felt like I needed to, you know, just check in with her. And I put the camera down. I said, PJ do you need me to get out of here, too? Do you need me to give you some space? And she's like, no, Jon, you're cool; I know you. And it was just, like, even from PJ in that moment was like, all right, dude, get back to work, and we're doing this together. And yeah, I'll never forget it.
GROSS: Did your whole understanding of what the film was going to be and what the shape of it was going to be change after the shooting?
OLSHEFSKI: Yeah. I was trying to make a quiet portrait of a family. So it was about daily routines and, you know, breakfast and going to school and, you know, the studio and the paper route. But just then all of a sudden - like, I wasn't trying to make a dramatic film, you know? Then this really sensational moment happens. This incredibly dramatic moment happens. But I wanted to stay true to that original vision of reflecting the quiet moments of this family as a counterpoint, again, to the police tape, the sirens, the stuff that the evening news portrays, and I think, you know, wanted to kind of tell this really dramatic story but from a different angle than everyone else was sort of telling it.
And I think that also motivated wanting to spend three more years, you know, filming to really kind of not have them be defined by this crisis but see them go - move through it and then, hopefully, have them be defined really on their own terms, by their own hopes and dreams, PJ's hopes and dreams because there's a lot more to PJ than just the kid who got shot. And I wanted the film to convey all of her layers and complexity.
GROSS: She's amazing because when she still has a bandage over one eye, she's shooting hoops and sinking it (laughter).
OLSHEFSKI: Incredible, yeah.
GROSS: You know, it's pretty remarkable. I mean, you don't have depth perception when you have one eye. So to be able to do that so quickly while you're still bandaged, that's something. Quest, tell us more about why you asked Jonathan to turn on the camera while you were in the hospital.
RAINEY: I really felt that - like I said, my wife and I really talked about PJ's recovery like, instantly. That was the first thing that came up, like, when we went home. And we couldn't think of a better way to get some, like, peace of mind because actually, it was like, OK, Jon, I want you to shoot this. But my intent wasn't like, OK, we're going to put it in the film. I really was like, you know what? Let's just concentrate more, like, on getting PJ together and, like, letting her, you know, see, you know, where she came from.
But as we - as the filming started coming out and we started seeing versions of it, it was like - it was almost like, OK, this is it. It made me feel empowered, you know, to see, you know, her get up and, you know, get out that bed and walk out that hospital, and when we were riding home, she'd tell me I'm getting on her nerves. You know, that empowered me, you know, to see that, you know, and to talk to her about it. There's - like, some nights when it first happened, she would just have these outbursts of, you know, about what happened to her - you know, the realization. And we would all stand around, just cry together - her, my wife and I, you know, and - because we don't know what to do but, you know, we know how strong she is. And we know - we hugged, and we talked about it.
And we discussed, you know, like, see, this is what we was talking about filming, PJ, so you could actually see. You know, you just going through the motions right now. But later on down the line, you're going to look back, and you're going to see how strong you were, you know? And it worked for us, you know. We flipped a coin with that, so to speak, because, like, everybody wanted to bring out the cameras. Everybody wanted to talk to her. Everybody had a solution. But it was only for a soundbite. Nobody really wanted to help her, it seemed, you know, or nobody was genuine about helping her.
Don't - and we knew Jonathan and his camera were more than just a camera and just somebody - you know, a director or somebody filming. He was a friend. So it was easier for us to communicate with him. Like, and to be honest with you, he was white, OK? So by him being white and being on the outside, it was like, OK, we could talk to somebody white and get an honest opinion from him about what do you - and, you know, he's in that, you know, field. What do you think they're going to do? Or what do you think people want to do with the cameras? And it was true. Like, just talking to him, like - these people wanted, like, soundbites.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to talk about that dynamic a little bit more, about how, like, Jonathan's white.
RAINEY: Right, it's, like...
GROSS: So he has access to, like, the white world. So...
GROSS: ...In general.
RAINEY: So there's a lot of stuff he can do that we can't, you know, yeah.
GROSS: Like, yeah. Like what?
RAINEY: Like, he could communicate with people that we can't - like, people will take him more serious on a certain level when he talks to these people, you know, like, about the business. Like, they might come out and say, listen, we want to film PJ And, you know, we want to take some soundbites - this, that. I would've talked to Jon.
Like, Jon, you know, these guys say they want to - you know, what do you think they going to do with it? And he's like, I don't know - use it for, you know, some Internet thing or whatever - this, that and the third. You know, so now I'm turning around, OK, so what do you guys want to do with it? You know, and they - no one actually had to - you know, they don't know. We're just going to - we just need you to sign this release, and we own your story.
And that's what we didn't want, you know? We didn't want a whole bunch of people coming in and just running out because there was no warmth. There was no communication. There was no honesty, you know, in everything that we're saying. But, you know, Jonathan brings that to the table when we talk. You know, I'm not saying he's my only white friend. But he's my closest friend, you know, that's not of my color. So when I communicate about situations like that, he's the most honest with me about those situations. We've done so much stuff together, you know, just hanging out. We like the same football team. I met his family. I met his father, you know?
It's not as strange as people would think - like, when people get to meet each other, and, like, it's always some kind of barrier between people, you know, of different races. There's always some kind of wall there or something - make you feel uncomfortable about saying certain words. But I don't feel that way when I'm around Jon. He doesn't - I don't think he feels that way when he's around us, you know?
GROSS: OK, so the North Philadelphia neighborhood that Quest lives in is an African-American neighborhood. You'd be very noticeable as a white person there.
OLSHEFSKI: Yeah, especially early on before it started gentrifying.
RAINEY: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: So when you started walking around with a camera and you weren't friendly with the people around - you were friendly with Quest and with Christine'a, but no one else really knew you, right? So how did people respond to you?
OLSHEFSKI: Well, I think the thing is, it's because I filmed so close to Quest and Ma that when we were out in the neighborhood...
GROSS: So everybody knew...
OLSHEFSKI: ...All the neighbors knew them. And it's like, oh, that's Peter Parker. That's Quest's cameraman.
OLSHEFSKI: ...You know? And so I just, you know, became attached to the studio and attached to the family. And so, you know, when I was filming with them...
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, so you got to - why are you called Peter Parker?
OLSHEFSKI: All right, I - so yeah - so very early on - so Price, you know, sort of stars in the film as well. And, you know, early on when it was still a photo project, I would go to the studio. And I was trying to get interesting, cool angles. And so I'd be climbing up on the furniture trying to get different angles.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
OLSHEFSKI: And so everybody's got a nickname, you know, over there. And so I can't just go by Jon.
OLSHEFSKI: And so Price just started calling me Peter Parker. And, you know...
RAINEY: It fit - yup.
OLSHEFSKI: And it stuck, you know? And so the whole neighborhood, all North Philly knows me as Peter Parker. It's just - they call me Pete, you know.
RAINEY: Yeah. They wouldn't even know his name is John, for real, until they saw the movie because they're probably like, who is John? Like, and they - no, that's Peter Parker right there because that's all they know him as. And like when the guys first met him and he was climbing on the furniture, they were - they kind of felt rejected because I wouldn't even let them put their feet on the table, let alone this guy standing on top of a counter just taking a great angle, you know. So, you know, it was like, OK, Quest, you must be really cool with him. And they really accepted John real fast.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining me, my guest is Christopher Rainey, who is known in his neighborhood of North Philadelphia as Quest because he runs the Everquest studio in his home, where he has something called Freestyle Friday, where he provides the music and kids from the neighborhood come in and rap. And he and his wife, who's known as Ma Quest - and her name is Christine'a Rainey - they're the subject of a new documentary called "Quest" made by Jonathan Olszewski, who's also with us. And this is a documentary shot over nearly 10 years, so there's a lot of their lives that are documented in this kind of time lapse. So we'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, I have two guests - Jonathan Olshefski made the new documentary "Quest" that documents over nearly a 10-year period the lives of Christopher Rainey and his wife, Christine'a Rainey, who live in North Philadelphia. Chris, who's also known as Quest, runs a recording studio from their home. And it's like a neighborhood recording studio where kids from the neighborhood can come in and record their raps. And Chris supplies the music. He composes the music that's the backup for them. And the camera - Jonathan and his camera were there for some, you know, really difficult dramatic moments, such as when the Raineys' daughter, PJ, was shot in the eye and lost an eye.
Another thing I wanted to bring up that's shown in the movie is that your daughter PJ - and this is like some time after she's shot. She has her new eye, which moves with the other eye, looks really good. And she's back doing the things that she does and everything. But she tells you that she's gay, and that seems like it's a big surprise to you and your wife and that you're concerned. So I'm wondering how that's working out for you as the parents now, if you're comfortable with that now.
RAINEY: Actually, we were actually comfortable the whole time. We kind of seen PJ as being gay coming up because she only did boy stuff. She didn't play with dolls.
GROSS: So you had a sense already?
RAINEY: We always had the sense. And I wasn't no help. Like my wife said, you know, I would buy her, like, plaid outfits that were boy outfits, you know, colors and things like that. But I didn't know to shop for a girl. That's why I ended up doing it, you know. So I really spent a lot of time with PJ. And, you know, when I was starting in music - playing music, I would sit her on my lap and she would play the keyboard. Like, our bond has always been there. We started noticing that she was hanging around girls that were gay like long before she even mentioned it.
You know, my wife and I used to always say, you think she's going to be gay? I'm like, no, you know how teenagers go through a little pressure and stuff in their lives and things like that. And we would talk to her about it. And she would say, no, I'm not gay. No, they're just gay and they're just my friends. Then one day she just came out, like, I'm gay. And I looked at my wife, and, you know, she looked at me. And I was like - in my head, I'm like, I knew it, like, you know. But I didn't say it, I just kind of smiled. But my wife already knew it and stuff so, you know.
And honestly speaking, PJ is now - she is my thesaurus on things like that, like, because I really don't understand the life to this day. And like I said, I thought either you were gay or not. I didn't know about LGBTQ, you know, all the letters. I didn't understand how they work. I still have times where I might be talking to somebody that's transgender or gay and I might say the wrong thing to them, but it's not on purpose. It's only because I don't know. I'm learning. There's no handbook for this, you know. So, you know, we all learn as we go along. So if I ever say anything that's out of context that doesn't seem right, it's only because I don't know - teach me, tell me, show me and I'll learn. That's the best way I can put it.
GROSS: That's a great attitude. So it also means PJ was coming out on camera. Was she OK with that, John?
OLSHEFSKI: Yeah. Well, we talked about it. And she was - yeah, she's - again, the one thing about being a documentary filmmaker, when you have a family that's very proud of who they are and confident in who they are, you know, it works, you know. And so - yeah, so she was fine. You know, we had a conversation and, you know, PJ wants to be known for who she is. And so that's what we wanted to reflect in the film.
RAINEY: And I guess you are right about that, John. Like, we really are proud of who we are. We really are proud, like, where we came from. Like, my wife and I really came from rough roads, you know. And for us to be where we are and to have the camera, you know, on us all the time was truly easy for us. You know, we were proud of ourselves. We wanted to see people because a lot of people in our past looked at us like we were never going to make it nowhere. We were never going to do anything for anybody, you know. And, you know, we just proved them all wrong. So at this point in life, you know, hi.
GROSS: So the documentary about you and your wife is kind of framed by elections.
GROSS: Because it starts when Obama is getting elected and ends during the Trump campaign.
GROSS: And we hear Trump talking about how the neighborhoods that African-Americans live in, they're more violent than war zones. And what do you, African-Americans, have to lose? Elect me. I will straighten it out. And we hear him saying that on TV as you and your wife...
GROSS: ...Are watching and talking back at the (laughter) television. But I'm wondering are there direct ways where you feel that, like, presidential politics or congressional politics impact your daily life?
RAINEY: I think local politicians - all those that have the powers to change the neighborhoods, all those that control the rec centers and things like that - those are the ones that - the people that we need to be addressing and talking to. And those ones that need to see this film and understand the impact that they cause when they decide to put a casino where a school used to sit.
GROSS: Is that what happened in your neighborhood?
RAINEY: Yeah, they were trying to put a casino in North Philadelphia for years. They finally did manage to, you know, find a place for the SugarHouse or whatever - I think it's called. But they were actually trying to come up as close as like Broad and Norris or whatever, you know, like less than a mile from where we live at. And that would have dramatically changed our neighborhood - the taxes. You know, poor people live in our neighborhood. Now everybody's really struggling again, you know. You know, people got to find extra jobs.
And, you know - and now we need babysitters because, you know, you can't - there's no day care at the corner anymore. You can't hang out with your child in the neighborhood because they closed down the library. So you're not taking your child nowhere to learn. You know, what you going to - sit in front of a TV? They shut down the swimming pools for a few years to save money on the budget. These kids were walking around the whole summer doing absolutely nothing, you know, because everything else was shut down already. Like you can't gather as a group these days as a child.
Like when I was little, we used to gather like hundreds of us - have block - you know, somebody bring out their music equipment, put up the speakers. And we all out there dancing and having a good time. You do that now. You're getting locked up. Or somebody's getting sued, or somebody has to have a permit. You know, you can't have gatherings anymore.
GROSS: Jonathan, how many years did you shoot footage for this film?
OLSHEFSKI: So 2006 was the - you know, started, you know, the photo project and then in 2007 started shooting video. So it's like 10 years, you know, and probably about 400 hours of footage by the end of it.
GROSS: How did you know it was time to structure a film?
OLSHEFSKI: So I think that, you know, eight years, you know, was just sort of one-man band with no budget. But then once the independent film world started coming in, we got some funders. So once the money started, then the clock started ticking. And so we had - you know, I was able to build a team around the film - amazing producer Sabrina Gordon and our editor Lindsay Utz. And so we collaborated to kind of make this thing.
And, you know, then, you know, we had a limited time, you know, to make it happen because I had to pay everybody. And then last year, Sundance Film Festival gave us a call and said, we want to premiere your film. And so all of a sudden, 10 years in, we've got seven weeks to kind of finish it. And so that sort of - those sort of external forces sort of forced our hand. But I can't think of a better time for this film to be out in the world than right now. So I think...
OLSHEFSKI: Because I think how polarized we are as a country. "Quest" is an invitation to connect - for anybody to see themselves in the Rainey family, to connect to the North Philadelphia community. And I think that we need that to sort of combat these narratives of division and fear that keep us apart. And I think that we need to listen to each other and dialogue and not be afraid of each other. And "Quest" is an invitation to connect.
GROSS: All right, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. And good luck with the film.
RAINEY: Thank you.
OLSHEFSKI: Thanks so much.
GROSS: Jonathan Olshefski new film "Quest" is about Quest and his family. It's already showing in several cities, including Philadelphia, and will open in more cities over the next few weeks. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review Steven Spielberg's new film "The Post" about The Washington Post's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. It stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. This is FRESH AIR.
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