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Quest and longitudinal filmmaking: Five of the best

Thursday 17 August, 2017

Jonathan Olshefski’s graceful portrait of a family getting by in North Philadelphia is released on Friday 18th August.

Quest follows nine years in the life of the Raineys, who are shown, through Olshefski’s tender lens, to be both your average American inner-city family and also extraordinary in their warmth, resilience and unity.

The fact that Quest covers nearly a decade allows us to see the quotidian details of life in the Rainey household, but also the bigger picture sweep of the years: the family deal with illness, addiction and deprivation as all the while the youngest member of the household, daughter PJ, grows from a bright kid to a wise young woman.

The passage of time is marked not just by PJ’s growing height, but by a subtly woven backdrop of unfolding world events. The years of Olshefski’s film map almost exactly onto the two terms of Barak Obama’s presidency, the impact of which is refracted through the Raineys as they react to TV news coverage of progressing election campaigns and rallies.

Filming subjects over many years takes dedication and a certain amount of courage for a filmmaker, but in the case of Quest, it's the passing of time that makes watching the film such a rich and expansive experience. The trust and intimacy built up between Olshefski and his subjects shines through in this unassuming, domestic epic.

It’s made us think about longitudinal filmmaking in all its glory, and so in honour of Quest, here’s our run down of 5 of the best long range documentaries:

Hoop Dreams

Steve James - 1994

Filmed over five years, the wholly engrossing Hoop Dreams didn’t take long to become a celebrated classic and cement director Steve James as a master of observational documentary.

The film follows the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys – Arthur Agee and William Gates – who dream of becoming professional basketball players.

Capturing the five tumultuous years of their high school careers, Hoop Dreams is an intimate study of teenage-hood as the boys struggle with obstacles at home and at school, as well as a consideration of race, class, expectation and ambition in late 20th Century America. 

Available to Watch on Netflix

Indonesia Trilogy

Leonard Retel Helmrich - 2001, 2004, 2011

Following three generations of one family over twelve years, Leonard Retel Helmrich’s trilogy functions as three separate documentaries, but one compelling, epic saga.

The Dutch filmmaker followed the Sjamsuddin family in Jakarta for over a decade, starting in 1998, to the backdrop of social upheaval in the wake of President Suharto stepping down. He released Eye of the Day in 2001, but continued to film, releasing Shape of the Moon in 2004 and the final, much anticipated film, Position Among the Stars, in 2011.

Pioneering and perfecting the ‘single shot cinema’ technique, which uses long takes and a constantly moving camera, and developing his own equipment along the way, including his signature ‘steady wings’ camera mount, Retel Helmrich’s Indonesia trilogy addresses socio-political change, religion and globalisation as the Sjamsuddin family grow up and grow old.

Watch Position Among the Stars on DAFilms:

Something Better to Come

Hanna Polak - 2014

Director Hanna Polak began to chronicle the lives of children living on a rubbish dump near Moscow in 2000, just as Putin came to power in Russia.

Ten-year-old Yula stood out, and Polak continued to film her for the next 14 years, as the hardship of a precarious existence takes its toll.

The film, which Polak edited with Marcin Kot Bastkowskias, as well as directed and produced, won a slew of documentary awards, including the Special Jury Prize at 2014’s International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).


Helena Treštíková - 2008

In 1989, Czech director Helena Treštíková started to film a troubled young man called René. Over the next 20 years – decades in which regimes change and governments fall – Treštíková follows René’s life, much of which is spent in prisons or on the street. Over time, she becomes the only real constant in his life, creating a tension which is woven into the fabric of the subsequent film – René

Treštíková is the master of what she calls ‘time-lapse’ documentaries, and René is far from her only long-range film. Within two years of releasing René in 2008 she completed Katka, which had been filmed over 14 years, and 2015’s Mallory follows its titular protagonist for 13 years. In 2017, Treštíková completed her latest film Strnadovi (A Marriage Story), telling the story of one couple’s marriage over 35 years.

Watch René on DAFilms:

7 Up… 56 Up…

Michael Apted - 1964 – 2012, so far...

The first instalment in this ground-breaking series followed the lives of fourteen seven-year-olds from a range of socio-economic backgrounds across the UK. Every seven years, a new instalment has been filmed, creating a chronicle of British life over five decades. To date, there have been 8 episodes, with the most recent, 56 Up, airing in 2012.

The well-loved series is synonymous with director Michael Apted, who was a researcher on the original 7 Up, and took over directing from the next episode onwards.

Much-imitated but never bettered, the UK TV audience has watched the 7 Up-ers grow from school kids to middle age, and as for Michael Apted, he has said he hopes to carry on and make 84 Up when he’s 99.

Watch episodes on Amazon HERE