Sundance Interview: QUEST’s Jonathan Olshefski And Sabrina Schmidt Gordon
In a year of absolutely stellar Sundance docs there was one that stood out both for its quiet dignity and sheer tenacity. Quest tells the story of one North Philadelphia family, with the titular patriarch known for opening his music studio to all members of the community to express themselves. With a day job involving the delivery of papers and this side gig as entrepreneur and producer, he’s a remarkable, compelling individual in and of himself. When you add the rest of his family, you get a portrait like no other, highly specific yet beautifully universal, spanning the time from Obama’s election to Trump’s recent rise.
We spoke to the film’s director Jonathan Olshefski about his debut feature, as well as his award winning producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon about their collaboration on this truly stunning film.
How did it all begin?
JO: I was working construction and doing art on the side and getting into documentary photography. I was teaching a photo class to grownups at this organization called New Jerusalem Now in North Philadelphia, and one of my students after class told me his brother lives a couple of blocks away and runs a music studio out of his house. We walk down the street, we go up the stoop and then Quest, my subject, opens the door and sees his brother with this white dude with a camera.
It was a little awkward.
I explained I'm a photographer just looking for stories. We exchanged cards and didn't think I'd ever see him again, but he ended up inviting me to come to the studio to take some pictures of the guys to just promote their work and give them a boost. At that first hangout I was just amazed by the community [surrounding] the studio.
And this is way back in 2006.
JO: Yeah, two years before the election. I found out that he delivered papers for a living and I saw this sort of parallel with my own life at the time - I was doing the jobby-job and then doing the passion project. I asked if he’d mind me going on his paper route to document that experience, a little photo essay of the working life vs. the creative life. The paper route is its own little world and community too.
That dude is the Michael Jordan of paper routes.
So that led to me sleeping over at the house because he was leaving at three in the morning and so I got to know the rest of the family. I'd never made a documentary film before and was, like, hey, do you mind if I learn how to make a documentary with you? So the first shoot we ever did was in September 2007. I got a SD DVX-100 camera and filmed the paper route and basically was going to do a similar thing: the working life, the creative life, the paper route vs. the studio. That December we had a rough cut, but it was not there yet, we needed to keep moving. 2008 comes around, this election thing, and thought it would be cool to get their perspective on that time.
So to be clear, this did not start out as an eight-year process.
JO: No! We made a little thing - let's shoot a bunch of music videos along the way rather than just taking stills. We made music videos for a bunch of the artists over the years.
So can we blame the producer for letting the scale of the production get pretty crazy?
SSG: No, no not at all! [Laughs]
JO: She forced me to finish, yeah.
When did you come into the project?
SSG: We started talking a little over two years ago I guess it is at this point.
So five years into shooting.
SSG: I was working on another project when he initially reached out to me through a mutual friend. Coincidentally I was on a fundraising panel giving out grants and I saw this material. We thought it had a lot of good stuff in it, but it wasn't quite clear how the filmmaker was going to handle the material. There was some anxiety frankly about a white filmmaker in this black space in a black neighbourhood and we're not clear about what he's going to do.
Fast forward, I get some e-mail from a mutual friend who said I want you to meet on this. He sends me links and then I see, oh my god, it's that guy! I didn't tell Jonathan that I had seen it before because the grant hadn't been announced yet but it was basically the same material. We talked a little bit about what I thought had potential and what I thought would be problematic.
JO: Blind spots, I would say.
SSG: You're talking about hip hop and inner city communities that already are inscribed with such powerful imagery and ideas in our culture. What are we trying to do? Are we trying to disrupt that? What are we trying to do in terms of telling the story?
JO: During our first-in person meeting we were talking about the project and then she tells me that she was actually on this panel where was a finalist but they didn't choose me. My mind just got completely blown. I don't have any network other than in Philly, and was this one-man-band, no budget for all of these years and then I figured I'd put it together.
SSG: We did a new sample and obviously I couldn't be on the panel again. We reworked it and we got the money and we've just been working since then - raising money, hiring an editor and just talking about story structure. I'm also an editor, so I think in those terms too.
I'm a big fan of two things when it comes to documentary: One, the intelligence and courage of the filmmaker to follow where the story goes, not to impose a story on what it is you're capturing; Two, I'm a humongous fan of films that should be bad and aren't. There is a terrible version of your film out there.
JO: Yeah, absolutely.
There is the exploitation version, there is the ignorant version, there is the “cultural safari” version.
SSG: Yes, right, exactly.
There is that notion of “who are you to come into our neighbourhood and tell our stories to us?” The fact that you avoided all of those poisons and still had the patience to tell the story is what I think is so extraordinary about it.
SSG: That's exactly - we didn't want to fall into any of those things. This is not like anthropology - Oh, let's look at the way we comb our hair and brush our teeth. At the same time, this fascination with this very superficial view of hip hop and there's no real understanding or appreciation of what's beneath all of it.
As for what you said about following the story where it goes - I also teach documentary filmmaking and that's what I tell my students all the time. There's the film you set out to make, and there's the film that you have. Your job is to figure that out and humble yourself to the material.
Could you talk about that moment of humility?
JO: I'd set out to make this really quiet portrait of this family. When I arrived on the scene in 2007 it was just kind of daily everyday life stuff. Then this tragedy happens to [Quest’s daughter] PJ in 2013. I didn't want to make a sensationalized story. How do I maintain this quiet portrait? How do I make them convey a story where they're complex and not just noble victims of tragedy or crisis? That’s why I filmed for another three years, because I didn't want them to be defined by this event. We could have stopped right then and made a movie that would have played because that material is so powerful, but I didn't want PJ to be defined as the girl who got shot.
SSG: If we get this wrong, people are going to come to me, you know what I mean? What are we saying with every shot? What are disrupting?
It's a film about listening.
JO: Yeah, get out of the way.
SSG: And giving people the space to be, frankly.
JO: You connect to Quest through his love, his frustration.
How did you know when to end? Would you still be shooting now if you could be?
JO: Yeah, probably. I love the process of being with these guys. We have this filmmaker-subject friendship but also symbiosis where it's just very comfortable.
Surely there are things that you had to cut that were personally resonant but not right for the film
JO: That was a hard thing in the edit. I was editing myself and was leaving in everything that I loved.
So who do you work with to make sure it wasn't all about the stuff that you wanted?
JO: Well, Sabrina but also our editor Lindsay Utz.
SSG: We had to be the bad guys in a certain kind of way. I hate that “kill your babies” expression but that was a part of it.
Confrontation doesn't need to be a negative word in certain collaborations.
SSG: Exactly, right. Sometimes it’s like…
JO: …Respectful conflict and dialogue…
SSG: …All working in the interest of the film. We're all working in the interest of the story, so nothing is ever coming from a mean-spirited or a devaluing place.
JO: The conversations we had before building the team were super important. So I trusted Sabrina, I was open and invited that challenge. It's weird - here's the white dude doing this thing.
SSG: In terms of what you're saying about not losing your vision, I think you have to start with a team that gets what you're trying to do. Otherwise you'll be butting heads all the time for the wrong reasons, as opposed to butting heads because you have a different perspective about getting to the same place.
It sounds like Jonathan was open to recognizing that you're going to have blind spots where other people are going to be able to point out what you can't see. Sabrina, what do you think your blind spots were?
SSG: Just because I'm a woman of colour doesn't mean I’ve lived their lives either. I'm also humbling myself. What I'm thinking about more is the ways in which these narratives are read. As a black person you understand that very well, how these things are inscribed. Sometimes I think I have to check myself, and sometimes I would really push a little bit further and then maybe pull back. Sometimes I was really in my head about certain things.
I don't know if it's a blind spot per se, but something I felt I had to keep being mindful of is that it was clear that Quest and Jonathan had a strong connection. You wanted to make sure that in thinking about media literacy and how is it read that we're not losing that, that we're not giving any of that up.
Equally, you don't want to be so close to your subject that you're blind to the greater impetus of narrative.
JO: To an audience, yeah.
SSG: Your subjects are trusting you with their lives and it's a tremendous responsibility. You just want to be sure you're doing your due diligence with every choice you make, every cut, every storyline.
While not letting their choices trump yours.
JO: It's just my reality so some things are maybe interesting that I don't even realize are interesting because I'm just used to that world.
Given the timespan the film feels both timely and timeless. What you see this film doing a year from now, ten years from now?
JO: Will PJ as a 30-year-old woman say I'm glad that I was a part of that? That good things happened to me as a result? But also North Philly, are they going to say I'm glad that Quest was made because connections were made, good things happened? We want to bring this to North Philly and communities like it so people can see themselves and be empowered and inspired and challenged to see their stories.
At its heart this is an incredible American story.
SSG: We tend to think of it in terms of siloed communities, as if this is an African-American story, but we really want to disrupt this. This is a quintessential American experience. I borrow this from Alicia Garza who was one of the co-founders of the hashtag Black Lives Matter, she talks about centering from the margins, about taking the communities and folks that we think about as other and privileging them saying this is America, this is American.
As I evolve as a documentary filmmaker and as I also think about the impact of films, I think there's something to be said about people seeing their own story being told. Empathy is a cool thing, but it's not everything.
It fails if it doesn’t speak to a wider audience, but at the same time if you take it to North Philly and they don’t respond it's equally problematic.
JO: You feel that challenge.
SSG: I would give up empathy if that empowers more communities like North Philadelphia. We're talking about the impact of it now, not the storytelling. I'm less concerned about a Trump voter loving it than I am about folks in North Philadelphia feeling like their story's told and matters.
We talk about people connecting but I always feel like that's really the beginning of the conversation. I think a lot about it in terms of impact. There's a sort of personal, subjective kind of view, but there's also a more concrete, measurable policy. This is Black Lives Matter lived. We should be talking about reinvesting in communities from the perspective of what folks like the Remi's think they need and want and desire.
The beautiful central metaphor of your film is that Quest created a space whereby somebody can come in whatever their background is and have a voice in the studio. He literally has a speaker's corner where somebody can come in, whatever their experience is, and in front of a mic say words that matter.
SSG: Here's a community that has been abandoned and neglected by the system. Quest didn't wait or lament that, he created something because he saw something that needed to be created. That's also tremendously disruptive.
What's your next project?
JO: I'm 6 years deep in another portrait of an American family. The story started in Philadelphia because that's where I'm at, but these guys are in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. It's a Native American family, the Fiddlers. Something just happened with that story yesterday, and so I'm probably going to go be with that family on Wednesday for a couple of days.