Alex Oliver’s feature-length documentary Voyage is a project that intrigues on two levels. It’s notable first for its contemporary twist on the epic-journey-of-discovery trope. Oliver and his team of artists, musicians and watersport athletes traveled by river all the way from Knoxville to the Gulf of Mexico in a 30-foot pontoon, staring down the grisly maw of misadventure and learning a good deal about themselves in the process.
But it also fascinates inasmuch as it represents a new esthetic in cinema–a movie made by a generation of filmmakers influenced as much by social media as Citizen Kane.
Oliver founded J.A.O. Productions, a promotional filmmaking agency, in 2007. “My parents told me to figure out what I wanted to do, and then find a way to make a living at it,” he says. “That led me to filmmaking; I love the art of story telling through film.”
But Oliver isn’t your typical movie geek; his fascination with film came as much from watching YouTube vids as Technicolor classics. And JAOPRO’s work to date has primarily been in the advertising and promotional side of filmmaking–although Oliver says he tries to bring to those projects a more expansive creative approach.
“Commercial content can inspire and empower,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a drudge.
“Filmmaking is evolving. This is a unique time, because everyone can afford to make their own movies now. Most people have an HD camera in their phone. I think it’s more important than ever to have content that matters.”
Voyage is JAOPRO’s first feature film–“We’re trying to find a place between the commercial/promotional side and other, traditional filmmakers–and the idea was something Oliver had been considering for some years. “When I figured out you could float all the way from East Tennessee to the Gulf, I knew I wanted to make a film about that,” he says. “I wanted it to be a sort of Huckleberry Finn type of adventure.”
The project was long in the making, though. It took time to muster the resources and the wherewithal to make the trip. “You can’t really tell your commercial clients, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re taking three weeks off to float down the river to inspire and empower people,'” Oliver laughs.
But plans finally came together in fall of last year. For the journey, Oliver assembled a crew of 16–including the filmmakers, plus a handful of artists, musicians, and professional wakeboarders. “These were all creative people whom I’d met over the last few years,” he says. “Part of the idea was to dive inside their minds over the course of the film and see what makes them tick.”
The trip itself was “absolutely fantastic–more fun that we dreamed it would be,” Oliver says. “There are two types of voyages. There’s the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ type of physical adventure, and there’s the more emotional and spiritual type of journey. We tried to focus on the latter.”
Which isn’t to say there wasn’t plenty of the former. Because the crew decided to take a longer, more circuitous route, the trip lasted three weeks, when it could have been accomplished in six days. Over the course of those weeks, the JAOPRO travelers passed through 19 dam locks, spent all of their nights outdoors in the elements, and ran into more than a few surprises.
“Physically, we had some crazy problems camping out the whole time,” Oliver says. “We had no phones, and there was no escape. We also had a run-in with a train. I’ll leave that story right there, not to spoil it for people who see the movie.
“We also met a lot of characters along the river, people who gave us real insight into life.”
The upcoming showing of Voyage at the Knoxville Film and Music Festival will be the movie’s festival premiere; after that, Oliver says showings are scheduled in Nashville, Atlanta, California, and Florida. He’d like to tour the festival circuit with the film, both stateside and abroad.
But Oliver says his chief goal with Voyage is to make people who see the film consider their own life choices. “I’ve seen too many of my friends go to work every day and not enjoy what they do,” he says. “I’d like to push people to figure out what voyage they’re on, and to make the most of it. To ask the question: ‘What am I living for?’, and find their passion.”
Voyage will screen Sunday, June 8 at 7 p.m. at Scruffy City Hall as part of the Knoxville Film and Music Festival.