While presidential polls and Sunday-morning pundits talk about the nation's economic and political despair, a group of Pittsburgh filmmakers found something slightly different outside the Beltway -- and off the interstates.
For more than a month, roughly a dozen Duquesne University students and alumni roamed the nation's less-traveled roads, bypassing a smooth ride on Interstate 80, searching for stories of the people and places off the beaten path. The crew visited 24 states in its journey from Pittsburgh to the Pacific, filming stories of conservation and devastation throughout the country.
At the outset of the trip, "I thought I was just going to get experience in filming," says videographer Bill Lyon. "But by the end, I came out with more than that."
According to Jim Vota, a Duquesne professor and executive producer/director of the trip -- aptly dubbed the "ALT Project" for the alternate routes used to travel the country -- the crew's message wound up being conveyed best through its filmed encounters in Greensburg, Kan. A tornado wiped out about 95 percent of the town roughly a year ago, and now its people are trying to rebuild with "green" technology.
"There is just a lot more present-tense thought [in rural America]," says Vota, who says his crew plans to make up to five 45-minute films out of the footage they shot. "It's like, 'We're not upset about the past, we're not worried about the future. We're dealing with right now, and this is what we have to take care of.'
"It's refreshing," he adds. "I hope we captured it well."
"I was expecting to see looks of despair," says photographer Kristen Massucci. "But [the people] were smiling. You could see the hope in their eyes, but you could see the destruction behind them. It's inspiring."
So much so that Lyon says he had to put his camera down after filming an interview with the city's mayor, who spoke positively about Greensburg's future, even as he stood amongst its ruins.
"I just reached a point in filming where I had to stop because I reached a high level of emotion," says Lyon, a senior digital-media arts major. "It was just one of those things that just hit you."
Vota says the rest of the country could learn a lot from Greensburg's rebuilding effort, which will rely on wind and geothermal technology. But most of all, he says, people can learn from rural America's move toward action.
"As we moved west, there was a lot of doing," says Vota, who along with another crew member made the cross-country trek on a dual-sport motorcycle. (The rest of the team packed into two SUVs.) "I don't see it as much in populated areas."
What they captured in Greensburg solidified Vota's belief that "there isn't this definitive American character," he says. "There is a multiculturalism that occurs in this country that is very unique and unexpected."
With a crew including two videographers, two photographers and three journalists, Vota says they were certainly capable of documenting most of what they saw and heard, be it good or bad. The team also visited national parks and Indian reservations nationwide, capturing the preservation efforts of the people who live and work within them.
Unfortunately, there were visible problems in some places -- both environmental and cultural.
The Great Salt Plains Lake in Oklahoma, for example, is suffering greatly from climate change, Vota says. The lake, which at one time was 300-500 feet deep, is now only a few feet deep.
Vota says they also filmed disturbing footage when visiting the Sioux Indian reservations in the Dakotas.
"It's incredible poverty," he says. "They've been really beaten up. And that sense of being beaten up has been integrated into their culture."
While Vota's crew had financial support from Duquesne University and a number of other sponsors -- food and gas alone totaled roughly $10,000 for the 12 members, two SUVs and two bikes -- no amount of money could help them navigate through the rough terrain or nature's unpredictable weather patterns. Vota says multiple flat tires, vehicle breakdowns and an SUV stuck in Utah's Salt Flats were setbacks for the trip.
But, then again, that wasn't too surprising, given the unconventional route the crew chose.
Driving along secondary roads "was incredibly difficult," says Vota, who over roughly three years pieced together a route that would get his team to Oregon's coastline. "You don't know if a road is paved. You don't even know if it's open."
And when you hit a road block in the country's remote parts, "there aren't any other roads around, so you have to get across it."
But, he adds, "That was the whole point" of the trip.
"The interstates go through the worst parts of the country," Vota says. "Everything looks the same. We didn't want to show that."
According to Vota, inclement weather added to the uniqueness of the trip.
"There were some suspenseful times," he says. "We dodged tornadoes for about a week," moving from Missouri to Nebraska. "One of the good things about this film is that it has all the right kinds of drama."
Currently, the crew is editing roughly 85 hours of film and scanning thousands of photographs. Their footage will be combined with the work of Duquesne graduate student Nick Sinagra, who also traveled the country's back roads, taking a route just north of Vota's team. Sinagra, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, wanted to document his experience from the perspective of a disabled person.
Although the documentary won't be finished until the end of the year, Vota says the ALT Project Web site (www.jma.duq.edu/alt/v2/) will be updated regularly with video trailers, photographs and blogs from the trip.
Since the cross-country journey was so successful, Vota hopes to make similar trips along back roads in other regions of the country. Already in the planning stages is a trip to the American Southwest, whose rugged terrain Vota would like to travel in Jeep Wranglers instead of on motorcycles.
But Vota says ALT Project's future relies on the generosity of its sponsors.
"There might have been some disbelief that we would pull [the first excursion] off," he says. "It was huge. ... Now, having this finished, I'm hoping that there will be individuals that will see the value in conveying this message."
For instance, by showing the country's natural beauty, Vota hopes viewers will understand that our national parks "are not there unconditionally," and their preservation relies on the help they receive from visitors.
"These landscapes are here as long as we can support them," Vota says. "They are sitting there waiting to be seen.
"I want people to see the documentary and say, 'I want to do that, too. I want to see these things with my own eyes.'"