Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Editor's note: Sasha Kohan is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2017.
It’s no surprise that a significant number of entries in the Sundance’s first U.S. Documentary Competition of the Trump administration illuminate subjects as diverse and disheartening as climate change, murder scandal, sports scandal, police-involved sex scandal, water crises, and billionaire-bought attacks on the free press. In the rapidly-changing state of our world with such bleak realities in the back of our minds, Jonathan Olshefski’s “Quest,” an unassuming portrait of one Philadelphia family over nearly a decade, is a warm and welcome surprise. With modest beginnings as a photo essay, the real-life variation of “Boyhood” that emerges from Olshefski’s intimate view of the Rainey family tree is often as heartbreaking as it is heartfelt, but never more hopeless than it is hopeful. Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his wife Christine’a lead the film and the family as loving partners and parents, but audiences will find themselves looking to PJ, the young daughter we see grow from innocence to young adulthood, as the film’s inherent heroine. “Quest” tells the stories of each family member with equal substance and respect, and succeeds not just in treating Quest, Christine’a, PJ, William and even baby Isiah as individuals rather than instruments in each other’s story, but in interlacing their narratives and characters so beautifully that the family itself becomes a unified and distinct character within the world of their own neighborhood.
After the documentary’s premiere, I had the chance to talk more with director Jonathan Olshefski and producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon about how the film came to be, the significance of the Rainey women, and the complication and care of the race relations behind the film production.
Can you tell me a little more about the origins of the project?
JONATHAN OLSHEFSKI: I was actually teaching a photography class in the community and one of my students, James, after class was like, ‘Hey, do you wanna meet my brother, he runs a music studio out of his house?’ And I said sure. We walk over a couple blocks away, and my subject, ‘Quest’ opens the door and sees his brother James with this white dude with a camera and is like, ‘Why’d you bring this guy in my house, is he a cop, like what’s going on?’
So, it was a little bit of an awkward exchange, but we ended up exchanging business cards and reconnecting later and he invited me to come to the studio and take some pictures to promote his artists and give them a little bit of a boost. And, in that first photo shoot, we just connected really well. I was working construction at the time and doing art stuff on the side, just pure passion, and I really see art as a catalyst for community, and I learned that the studio wasn’t his day job, but his day job was delivering papers. And so I thought that was a really interesting parallel with my life, so I asked him, ‘Hey, would you mind if I continue taking pictures in the studio but also if I go with you one your paper route and do the photo essay that sort of compares the working life with the creative life.’
And so we did that for about a year and a half, and during that year and a half I got to know the family—I was sleeping over at their house because, you know, he would leave for his paper route at like, three in the morning, so I would just sleepover and I got to know their kids and people from the neighborhood. And after a year and a half I just realized cinema would be a better medium to convey the complexity of the story and hear the music from the studio and everyone’s points of view, just hear their voices, just see how light plays on them, see how they move. I had never made a documentary film before, so my first shot of documentary film was riding the truck on the paper route, and that was 2007. So, that was the genesis of it.
Was there a specific event that made you realize, ‘I have to get a crew together’? When did you start organizing everybody else?
JO: A crew?!
SABRINA SCHMIDT GORDON: You should probably clarify that you didn’t really have a crew—so, traditionally, you do hire a sound person and—but you were a one-man band for like, the entire 10 years …
JO: Yeah, so, for the most part I think that—early on, I was experimenting, and I had built up, for a year and a half, just still photos and a rapport with them and it just made sense for it to be just me. But I had to learn, you know, now I have to deal with sound, and image. So there were some mistakes along the way. And there were times when I did experiment early on and bring in someone to help with sound and other things, but I just realized in order for this film to work, you need to be patient and there’s no money. I just felt a little anxious because I didn’t want to waste a sound person’s time if they were going to give it to me for free, so I thought I would just do it myself. So, in terms of production, very little crew. If you see the credits, you’ll see there are some names of people who helped here and there, but it was mostly just me the whole time.
But then, push things eight years later, I had this massive amount of footage and this dream and this vision. And I cut things myself and we’ve done screenings and whatnot, but—I guess the start of it was the Independent Filmmaker Project has a documentary lab. I applied to it not even knowing what it was, I thought it was a grant or something, but I got accepted, and it was this amazing mentorship program over the course of nine months. They saw something in the film but they really said, you know, ‘You can’t just do this by yourself with no budget. You need to build a team around the project and find money to kind of make this happen, because there’s potential here, but in order to reach its full potential, you need to get some support.’
When I was watching, two things I kept taking notes on were hair and hands. Those were images that kept coming up and I thought it was so beautiful every time, and I have a whole list of examples of the moments that stuck out to me, but I wondered if there was a particular intention in including so many of those small moments when you had 10 years of footage to go through.
SSG: [laughing] I was just thinking about that, with the hair. What’s really interesting is that over the course of the ten years, there’s a lot of hair combing—
JO: It’s a routine—
SSG: But that was an example of something that I could be very nitpicky with, that we talked about. Like, I actually felt that, in other iterations of the film, there was actually a lot more of that, that I thought was actually problematic, especially when you think about the racial dynamic of the subject and the filmmaker. Because as black folks, one of the things that’s a consistent theme is this idea of white folks being very curious about us in certain ways, and that’s represented very physically in curiosity about our hair. Like, when you go to films in general, you don’t see scene after scene of white folks brushing their hair, but yet, every film with a black person, there’s always this obligatory hair combing scene or scenes, and sometimes they even seem to be driven by whatever else is happening. And especially as a white filmmaker, the way that might be read is like, you know, ‘Here they go again’ and being curious about, like, ‘Oh, look, they’re combing their hair again’—whatever it is.
So, that said, the truth is, that’s kind of something that happens on a regular basis, you know, [the Raineys] braid their hair in a certain way that’s time-consuming, and it’s like, if you’re talking to them and spending the day with them and they’re braiding someone’s hair, that could be a good chunk of the day. It could be two hours or however much time you’re spending there. So, we tried to figure out ways that we can keep the truth of that—like, if that’s what’s happening, that’s what’s happening—but at the same time, just be mindful that we’re not overdoing it or overusing it, or being lazy with the editing, like ‘Just stick another cutaway of hair in there’ because—
JO: As an outsider, it’s something that’s visually interesting and it’s something that’s exotified—
SSG: Yeah, exactly, there’s an exotification, an objectification, because I think there’s a way in which, hair braiding and other things—like, you know, as people of color and I think with black folks in particular, sometimes you’ll see nudity, like in photographs, and there’s a certain way where folks are not thinking of the dignity—like, even if you catch someone naked, it’s like it’s okay because maybe they’re in this third world country but like, you wouldn’t film your mom that way, if you caught her—you know? You wouldn’t put that in the film. There’s a way in which there’s a lack of, what we perceive anyways, a lack of sensitivity, and this permission that outsiders sometimes get to feel, that it’s okay to objectify folks.
JO: I think too, to bring it full circle, that obviously it is in the film and you recognize that, yeah, there’s some amazing moments where there’s conversation and that’s when the family is talking and sharing life in those moments and so, you see early on as these quiet, everyday moments, but then you see them play out in the context of sort of a crisis moment too and it kind of shows this connection. So, we’re using it to set up those connections and not wanting to overdo it—
SSG: Right, because there are—like, the Obama conversation and other conversations when they’re talking about their relationships—that’s what’s happening. And then, as you know from the film, there’s a scene later on where PJ getting her hair done is actually part of the story, after Ma and Quest have that conversation, so you have to have it there, because it’s all about what that represents.
Yeah, that was linked into my next question about—like, all the hair scenes that I had noted were all directly related to the characterization of Christine’a and PJ—
SSG: Yes, and that’s how we want you to see it, not as a bunch of extraneous things, but everything you see is …
JO: You get to know them as people.
SSG: Everything is leading, giving you information about the story and about them.
Yeah, I thought it totally played that way. I was really struck by Christine’a’s character—or, okay, I guess I’ll ask this first: it seems like, even though you guys and the family said at the Q&A that the main focus of the movie is the importance of family and their unity, the special bond between them—it seemed to me like special attention was given to the women of the film, and I wonder if that was intentional, if you consciously highlighted their stories or if that was something that came up in the editing process?
SSG: Well, there’s two women and one guy over here from the core, [laughs] because it was Jon, me and [editor Lindsay Utz], so it was two to one, so maybe that’s where we needed someone to push back and say ‘Wait a minute.’ [Laughs] I’m teasing.
JO: No, it’s true, I was excited to work with two women, but you know, again, with building the team, and recognizing that I do have blind spots and this is who I am, and wanting to fill those gaps in and have frank discussions about that…so, was it intentional?
Well, just because, especially because the movie is called "Quest," which is Chris’ nickname—
SSG: Oh, right. That’s a very interesting point—
And the whole thing started off being about him and his paper route, so it seemed like he’s where it started off but in the end, the real focus was on the women.
JO: Yeah, yeah. I guess, for me, it’s a balance, but I think, ironically, a lot more material with Quest ended up on the cutting room floor because I spent so much—I mean, we’re just so tight, I’m tight with everybody, but just the paper route, the studio, and all these things we did together—but we really did want to forefront and reflect the lives of our other subjects, and that was important. I think they all offer something, we want them all to be complex, so we want to forefront them in that way.
SSG: And I think frankly, obviously, without giving anything away, the climactic moment of the film is centered around PJ, not to mention she’s the one who’s most physically transformative in the film. She’s the one who grows up before our eyes, so she’s kind of the magnet of attention and interest and so on, so I think by virtue of that, that might have privileged the women’s stories. But I think what’s really cool about the film, too, is you see a very strong connection between daughter and father, which I think is something that just generally speaking and respective, you don’t really see that often.
JO: Yeah, they had an amazing relationship—
SSG: And that becomes a little bit of a thing too—
Right, in the conversation between [Quest] and Christine’a.
SSG: Can I ask you a question?
SSG: So, when you have the name of the film, "Quest," but you feel like it really is about—not to say that it’s not about Quest, but it feels very much about the women—does that make you—how does that impact you as a viewer? Like, does it make you feel like, ‘Oh, why is it named after the dude, when…’ you know?
Well, you know, I didn’t know that—like, I think everyone goes in thinking, ‘Okay, it’s about the journey of a family’ and you don’t realize that it’s someone’s name. I kind of like it, because it feels sneaky to me.
SSG: [Laughs] Oh, cool!
I kind of enjoy that, in things when …
JO: When it’s not obvious.
So in the Q&A also, you said that you appreciated the movie was not about violence, gun violence or police tension specifically, but that those things came up naturally in the course of the family’s story, and I was wondering if the movie accurately depicts the relationship between the Raineys’ neighborhood and the police, or if there were incidents of police tension that weren’t included, because I was really—pleasantly—surprised by how friendly the relationship between the police and PJ was, when they went to her welcome-home neighborhood party and she was playing basketball with them, but then you do see the scene towards the end where they’re checking Quest—
SSG: Racial profiling.
Right, and then Christine’a feels the need to take her phone out and film it, so I was wondering how, in the whole 10 years that ended up in the film, if that was an overall accurate depiction?
JO: The reality is it’s complicated. There are things that happened while I wasn’t there that I didn’t film where the police aren’t that great, and even in that cellphone footage and the conversation that happens after, you know—this is a thing that happens, and is a routine, and it’s unnerving. As we know, as a society, in those interactions one thing can go wrong and somebody could get killed, and that’s really serious. But, at the same time, too, yeah, they are serving the community. In Philadelphia, also, the police force is much more diverse than it is in other places, so that changes the dynamic, but—yeah, I think it does reflect it, but there’s definitely a lot more gritty stuff that happens that we just didn’t have on camera.
SSG: And you remember, too, that that police officer was directly involved in helping PJ when she was shot, so they have a relationship that’s just different anyway, so that informs that familiarity and it was refreshing, and speaks to what I was saying about how this film is not necessarily like, ‘Oh, we set out to make a film about the relationship between the police and the community,’ but that sort of emerges in a way that is much more complex. It can be one way one minute and on a dime it can be something else, depending on the context, and that is the real way people experience these things that we see on a larger scale on TV. So, when we talk about racial profiling, it’s not about all these interviews or stats but when you just see somebody experience it by the very same people who’s probably smiling at them the day before—you know, they have the generic description and he’s subjected to that very tense and kind of humiliating—like, this is in your neighborhood, you’re being searched in front of your neighbors—
JO: Yeah, it’s right in front of—I mean, he’s taking his garbage out, is what happened, and he was just wearing the standard style of the neighborhood.
SSG: And this is the way in which we can talk about these issues through the way they are really lived, you know, and it doesn’t have to be—you know, both things can coexist. They can be hanging out, and just be friendly, and it could be that too.
JO: And we want it to be honest, you know, we don’t wanna say, ‘The cops are bad’ or ‘The cops are heroes,’ it’s just—it’s messy.
SSG: Well, you know, we can’t say that, because that’s not what happened—
JO: Yeah, and it’s polarizing. Like, I think people on either side can see this and get challenged, whether you think the cops are great—okay, you’re getting challenged—or the cops are total shit, you’re getting challenged. We want to challenge all our viewers, wherever they’re at.
SSG: I think though, in terms of a black and white experience, I think it’s really—I think it really captures a slice of life in a way that you can’t describe but you can see it in the film, that there’s that weird tension that we just live with that, like, this could change on a dime. We’re both things all the time, you know, we live in the community and you know us and then you could be searching us.
JO: And [to Sabrina] you’ve had that, like—
SSG: I mean, I’ve never been racially profiled. [laughs]
JO: No, but I mean, there’s that threat—
SSG: No, I know, there’s a certain lack of—you never feel like, just, chill. You know what I mean? The tension is always there, you’re always thinking about—it’s just a different relationship to the police and to law enforcement and things like that, that—you can see what that must be like, just living that on a daily basis, because it’s very mundane, what happened, really. But it’s like an ever-present reality that perhaps some white folks in other communities never even think about. That’s what I was trying to get at, really.
Yeah, I think the film definitely succeeded in achieving the balance that you were talking about, especially that’s so important right now. I feel like, I don’t know—there are definitely two very obvious sides. It seems like maybe the left is more used to demonizing the police and the right—well, now Trump is basically saying, ‘We’re going to protect the police.’
JO: And they do need to just do their job, they need to be accountable. That’s all we’re asking, we’re not saying, you know, angels and demons, it’s just, be accountable for your actions.
SSG: And I think Trump—I don’t know, maybe this is a little bit of a digression, but Trump’s thing is consistent with all his things, like it’s a very insensitive, tone-deaf sort of response, like, you’re not really paying attention to the nuances of these relationships to say some blanket thing like that.
Ed. – This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
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