This film started based on a chance encounter while I was teaching a photography class in North Philadelphia a few blocks from the Raineys' home/music studio. It is a reflection of a relationship. It mirrors the friendship that I have developed with the Rainey family and their community over the last ten years. That friendship is the most precious thing to me--the film and all that comes from it are a bonus.
I came to Philadelphia in 2000 after growing up in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a relatively diverse town and is pretty integrated. I went to elementary school in the 1980s and 1990s and old-school hip hop was a part of the culture in which I was immersed, even though I liked oldies at the time. Many of my classmates, my bus drivers and the recess ladies wore the gear and sang the songs. I loved so many of them and thus was imprinted positively by that world. When I came to Philly to go to Temple University, I fell in love with the city, but I recognized that many of its communities were really struggling. I was surprised by how segregated it was, with stark barriers between communities of different races and ethnicities. It posed a contrast to my experience in Pittsburgh. I had a deep desire to see healing and connection across these artificial barriers and after graduation searched for opportunities to make that happen. At the time, I was making experimental films and getting into photography of interesting spaces (abandoned warehouses and buildings and so forth), but did not see any correlation between my art and my desire for connection. I had no interest in documentary.
When I first met Chris "Quest" Rainey and Christine'a "Ma Quest" Rainey, I was working construction and making art on the side. When I learned about Quest balancing his work at the studio and a paper delivery route, I saw myself. I could relate to juggling a passion project and a day job. We began a photo essay project intended to convey that dynamic, and that led to me sleeping in the studio in order to be up and ready to join him on his paper route at 3:00 a.m. After spending time with the Raineys and their community, I soon realized that the essential story was not that of the studio and the paper route, but the story of their family and their community. I also began to realize the limits of still photography and wanted to find another medium that would better reflect the complexity and points of view of my subjects. This led to the decision to make my first documentary film.
Over the years I have often been asked, "What right do you, as a white man, have to make a film about a black community?" I don't know if I am the one to answer that question. I made the film and I stand by my choices, but I don't think I have any inherent right to do so, and I am very aware of the long history of privileged filmmakers going into communities that are not their own to take stories and craft them for other audiences outside of those communities. This can be an incredibly destructive process and marginalize the place and its people, especially when it is a place that has already been marginalized previously.
Stories are incredibly powerful. Who tells them, how they are told and to whom they are told are important factors.
I will say that I did make this film for North Philadelphia and places like it. My original vision for the film was to use it to promote the Raineys' studio in order to share their message of hope and community. I hoped to screen the film in different neighborhoods around Philly and maybe even go to other cities with the Raineys and their artists. While making the film, I could never have dreamed it would show at the Sundance Film Festival, but my hope is that this experience will enhance our ability to create context around the film so that ultimately North Philly benefits. I believe that a story well told and brought to a place in a compassionate way can build bridges and strengthen community.
Films surely reflect the voices of their directors, but my goal as a director is not to push my own personal feelings. Rather, it is to convey respect and honor for my subjects and accurately reflect and amplify their perspectives and feelings. My only agenda is to provide viewers the opportunity to connect to these really incredible individuals and share the love that I have for them. That is what I want the viewer to take away. These are people whose voices should be heard.
-- Jonathan Olshefski