Jonathan Olshefski, associate professor earns $100,000 to continue career in storytelling

Jonathan Olshefski stands in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia with his son Caleb. Olshefski is an associate professor of radio, television and film at Rowan University. -Photo courtesy of Jonathan Olshefski

On 3/24/16 the following error was corrected in this story: Patricia “PJ” was shot, not killed by a stray bullet.

As a child, Jonathan Olshefski loved hearing and telling stories. Olshefski and his two brothers would sit hunched together in a bedroom while their father told them stories late at night, allowing them to explore their creativity. As they got older, Olshefski and his brothers used their imaginations to create their own stories.

“At the age of 13 or 14, Jonathan got a hold of a video camera, gathered some friends to help him, and would write and edit his own films,” Olshefski’s father Richard Olshefski said. “Even at a young age, he knew how to use film to tell a compelling story.”

Olshefski liked storytelling so much that he went on to make a career out of it, studying filmmaking at Temple University, which eventually led to a position as an associate professor of radio, television, and film at Rowan University in 2011. In December of last year, he was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Macarthur Foundation, giving him the monetary boost to complete his long-term project.

The story, a documentary, began in 2006 while he was teaching a photography class at New Jerusalem Now, a residential addiction recovery community in Philadelphia. He started working there in an attempt to empower others to share their stories visually.

“I fell in love with Philadelphia during my time at Temple,” Olshefski said. “It’s a city that’s very divided too, in terms of race and class. I wanted to find a way to give back to that city.”

Through a connection at New Jerusalem Now, Olshefski, 34 connected with a man who would become a lifelong friend. That man was Christopher “Quest” Rainey. In 2006, Olshefski began shooting still photography in Rainey’s studio. As time went on, he got to know the Rainey family and was moved by their complexity.

He decided to switch his medium to film because he felt so much of their lives remained untold, and photography could not quite capture their essence. He completed a ten-minute documentary on the family as his graduate project in December 2007, but knew that one film was not enough.

“I really wanted to tell a story which honored all facets of the Rainey family,” Olshefski said. “In order to do that, I had to keep going.”

The Rainey family project titled, “Quest: The Fury and the Sound,” would take more than a decade to complete. Throughout that time, he experienced the family’s struggles just as much as they had. He witnessed Christine “Ma Quest” Rainey, Rainey’s wife, balance being a part of the household while working a job. He saw Rainey manage odd jobs and his basement music studio, mentoring kids in the blighted area of north Philadelphia. He was with their family when Rainey’s daughter Patricia, or “PJ,” was shot by a stray bullet as she was walking home.

“[Jonathan] has always been concerned with seeing North Philly for as it is and knowing many people’s perceptions of it was off,” Rainey said. “I felt it was a really great way to let people know that we’re not much different from other neighborhoods. People should be there for each other, not think that they’re the only ones who are the victims.”

Olshefski began marketing his documentary at film festivals and various labs, and many organizations said the project had great potential. Now that he has the $100,000 grant, he is able to edit the 10 years and over 300 hours worth of footage into a comprehensive film he hopes to release next year.

“He was so good at turning a concept into a complex, beautiful, and elegant process,” said Sarah Drury, a professor of film at Temple and mentor to Olshefski. “It does not surprise me that he has done this again and flourished with the creation of this documentary.”

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