Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview with Filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski

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Jonathan Olshefski, 2018 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski (2018) spoke to us about how he came to filmmaking, how stories build a sense of connection, and why he says he “makes art to make friends.”

Olshefski’s debut feature film, QUEST, examines race and class in America as it follows the moving story of a North Philadelphia family and its community over the course of ten years. He is currently at work on Without Arrows, a film that tracks the lives of three generations of a Native American family in South Dakota. Olshefski recently received a grant for this project from Catapult Film Fund. His work also comprises short films, still photography, installations, art books, and digital media. Olshefski has been recognized as one of “9 New Directors You Need to Watch” by The New York Times and one of “25 New Faces in Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine. He is associate professor at Rowan University’s department of radio, TV, and film, and he holds a MFA from Temple University.

Jonathan Olshefski Q&A: Content Block 1

Jonathan Olshefski Q&A: Content Block 2

What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?

I desire connection. That is my core desire as a human being, and I have found that making art facilitates that. I make art to make friends. I think that art that can be a catalyst for community. It can bring people together and allow people to understand each other better.

My biggest fear is to cause harm. This fear drives me to always check myself and be very thoughtful. Stories are incredibly powerful and as such they can be used as weapons. Stories can build a sense of connection or destroy it. Many communities have been devastated by thoughtless or predatory storytelling. There is a sad legacy of privileged storytellers imposing their own narratives upon the people and communities that they depict, thus marginalizing and silencing them. Visual colonialism.

I think that documentary storytelling is about reflecting the voices, experiences, and perspectives of the subjects/protagonists on the other side of the camera, and I am committed to a relational and thoughtful process that allows me to connect and understand deeply, so that I can reflect authentically.

Whose opinion about your work do you respect most?

My subjects/protagonists and their communities. If I don’t do right by them first, then all the critical praise in the world is meaningless.

My peers: other artists and filmmakers whose work that I respect and am inspired by.

Holly, my wife.

Still waiting on God to explicitly weigh in, but the haphazard path forward keeps being cleared, and I find meaning in that.

Jonathan Olshefski Q&A: Content Block 3

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