Ask anyone about the great Philadelphia movies, and you can usually anticipate the answers—Rocky, The Philadelphia Story, Trading Places, Blow Out, and so on. But the Philly area’s cinematic footprint extends beyond these classics. Recent years have yielded an incredibly rich trove of documentaries illuminating the region’s history, personalities, and contemporary affairs.
Among the most prominent of these works is director Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest, documenting nearly a decade in the lives of the Rainey family, whose basement music studio serves as a gathering place, creative hub, and sanctuary for their North Philadelphia neighborhood. “Quest speaks volumes about working-class life and the necessity of community, parenting, perseverance, speaking out, speaking up, hope,” wrote David Fear in Rolling Stone. “The way Quest lets you ride shotgun as the Raineys take the good, the bad, and the ugly feels quietly monumental.”
Quest played at BMFI in spring 2019, presented by Haverford College’s Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities as part of the Strange Truth documentary series. Jonathan Olshefski and members of the Rainey family joined us after the screening to discuss being filmed in personal moments, North Philadelphia’s depiction in the media, and Olshefski’s studio nickname. After you revisit the conversation, check out a few more documentaries telling remarkable stories from the Greater Philadelphia region.
For years, they appeared without explanation—odd plaques embedded in streets around Philadelphia, bearing a cryptic message: “TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE ‘2001’ RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” Jon Foy’s quirky documentary attempts to piece together the disparate leads—including a South Philly address, a David Mamet play, and a society dedicated to interplanetary colonization—in an effort to crack a decades-long local mystery.
On May 13, 1985, an extended stand-off between the Philadelphia police and radical activist organization MOVE came to a head when the city dropped two military-grade bombs on the group’s West Philadelphia rowhouse-turned-compound. The explosion and ensuing fire killed eleven people and destroyed sixty-one houses. This gripping film traces the years of clashes, political conflict, and racial tension that led to one of the darkest days in Philadelphia’s history.
See where Let the Fire Burn is streaming.
We had the pleasure of hosting director Glenn Holsten, producer Chayne Gregg, and Mary Landa of the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art at our June 2019 screening of this fascinating artist portrait. Andrew Wyeth painted for seven decades, drawing inspiration from the people and places around his native Chadds Ford, PA, producing an oeuvre that was both intensely intimate and hauntingly mysterious. Yet, despite immense popularity with the public, Wyeth’s work was (until recently) largely dismissed and lambasted by critics. Drawing from interviews, archival footage of the Wyeth family, and close study of the paintings themselves, Wyeth contemplates the life and legacy of an American master.
Growing up on the Main Line, Sasha Neulinger’s childhood was extensively documented on camera by his filmmaker father. But the footage also contained hints of something terrible occurring behind the scenes—his abuse at the hands of several relatives. In this autobiographical documentary, Neulinger uses his family’s vast home-video archive to undertake a harrowing but cathartic confrontation with the trauma of his past, and an investigation into the cyclical nature of abuse.
Prior to the pandemic, BMFI planned to host Rewind‘s Pennsylvania debut, along with an in-person Q&A featuring Neulinger and other documentary participants. We still hope to screen the film once it’s safe to reopen, but in the meantime, the film is now available for home viewing.