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Mon Valley native explores North American landscapes

| Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

A Duquesne University professor with Elizabeth Township roots says the goal of a documentary film-making project he developed is to show college students that they don't have to leave Pittsburgh to pursue careers in journalism and media arts.

Jim Vota, 39, who now calls Scott Township home, credits growing up in Western Pennsylvania with helping him develop a sense of creativity that he now draws upon as director of The Alt Project, an award winning documentary film series that's been exploring North American landscapes largely by motorcycle and history since 2008. "Growing up in the (Mon Valley) area allowed for a lot of imagination," says Vota, who rides a motorcycle. "There was access to urban areas but still places to go and experience creativity in life."

The wilder places still call to Vota, who, with a team of dedicated university students, is currently at work on two new productions. One is an historical look at the Acadian people's exile from Canada to Louisiana.

The other traces a motorcycle journey along the Trans-Labrador Highway in northeastern Canada.

Initially conceived as a project built around a theme of motorcycle travel, The Alt Project's first film, "Collecting Somedays," released in 2008, was motorcycle tour of America's national parks.

The second film, "7 Days, 17 Hours," released a year later, was a two- wheeled journey along the original path of the Pony Express.

So far, the projects have documented about 30,000 miles of motorcycle travel, picked up five Telly Awards and helped about 30 students acquire media production skills that help build resumes.

The Pony Express project was shown at the Smithsonian Postal Center in Washington, D.C., and Vota was recognized last November in Pittsburgh Magazine's "40 Under 40" feature that profiled people under the age of 40 who are making Pittsburgh a better place to live. Vota says the region already has the talent and services necessary to make documentary films. His hope is that the Duquesne initiative will convince students that "you don't have to leave to do big things. A lot of young people don't believe they can do these things in Pittsburgh. They leave but they don't really have to."

Duquesne graduate student Bill Lyons, who's worked with Vota on the project since 2008 as a videographer, says he's "been really hopeful about this city in terms of what's going on (in media arts). I think everyone wants to be collaborative with each other in this city." Lyons says he's willing to go "wherever the road takes" him this year when he graduates, but he hope to stay in Pittsburgh, aspects of which remind him of his home in Mercer County.

Photographer and grad student Dave Onomastico, who originally is from Chambersburg, Franklin County, says a lot of his colleagues see New York or Los Angeles as choice destinations after graduation, but he too is open to staying in the area after he graduates.

"Pittsburgh is actually a pretty big market," he said.

Onomastico, who was part of the Canadian filming projects last summer, says he's had some opportunity to see the Mon Valley through a documentary project that examines the challenges addicts face when going through a 12-step program. The project followed some subjects to McKeesport, where they had gotten housing through their recovery program.

"They see McKeesport as a fresh start," says Onomastico, noting that that project is currently in the development stage.

Vota's parents, Larry and Dolly Vota of Elizabeth Township, didn't expect their son to follow a path into academics and documentary film making, considering his main interest early in life was sports. Baseball, swimming and football growing up, they said, their son played them all.

Larry Vota, who sits on the Elizabeth Township board of commissioners, says he saw the interest in creative arts develop when his son began college at Duquesne.

"We were surprised," he says, noting his son briefly considered dedicating himself to athletics at the university.

"He had to make choice," Larry Vota says. "It was going to be academics or football."

He chose academics and went on to earn his bachelor's degree from Duquesne as well as master's degrees in education and multimedia technology.

Hired by the university in 2000, Vota says his first interest in creative arts and storytelling came from going out for Elizabeth Forward High School's musical in 1988, "West Side Story," and landing the part of Bernardo. Vota says a friend actually tricked him into trying out, but once he'd gotten the part, he was impressed.

"I saw this creativity and authenticity from the people involved," he recalls.

Vota says "nothing was as terrifying" as his first case of stage fright. Vota, who gets plenty of two-wheeled camera time in The Alt Project's films, says the group is looking west to Colorado as the destination for its next historical project.

He won't elaborate on the theme of the film, but says a recent grant from the Knight Foundation will go a long way toward making the project possible.

Typically it takes between $40,000 and $50,000 to create a film. The Alt Project tries to keep all aspects of its production local. Vota says the effort has received help from local musician Dan Zigarelli, who's produced soundtrack music for the films, Mathias BMW of New Philadelphia, Ohio, which supplied motorcycles, and others who are listed on the project's website .

Vota also credits the administration at Duquesne for backing the idea of the project when he presented it as a experiential learning model and continuing to support its development.

The Alt Project is looking for a distributor for its latest two films, which should be completed this spring. Both documentaries are shot in high definition video.

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