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Hollow: Documenting West Virginia

The HillVille unabashedly loves stories, community building and especially innovative ways to use stories to build community. So when we saw Hollow, an interactive documentary about McDowell County, W.Va., on Kickstarter, we were intrigued. We caught up with project founder and ex-App Elaine McMillion earlier this week to get the scoop.

By Niki King

Coal’s boom and bust cycles have moved people in and out of Central Appalachia’s communities for almost two centuries.

Migration in the region maybe an old story, but documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion is planning a new, innovative way of telling it.

McMillion, a West Virginia native studying media arts at Boston’s Emerson College, is spearheading an interactive documentary that will feature residents of McDowell County, West Virginia, discussing the future of a community that’s lost more than half its population in the last 60 years.

The final product will be an HTML5 website with resident profiles, interactive data, participatory mapping and user-generated content. For this project though, the process maybe just as important as the final product.

McMillion is planning to disseminate cameras to locals and help them tell their own stories.  Eric Lovell, a cartographer and West Virginia native living in Oregon, will guide youth in a new, grassroots technique of using balloons to capture images in McDowell County’s downtown areas that will be stitched together into maps. These maps will be presented at public workshops and used to spur discussion about what residents want for their community.

“We want to create a space for people to reflect on the past, the present and gaze into the future,” McMillion said.

Allowing people to craft their own narrative is important in an area that has historically struggled with stereotyping and simplistic portrayals in national media, McMillion said. This kind of participatory filmmaking is like the community storytelling that Appalshop, the non-profit, multi-disciplinary arts center in Whitesburg, Ky., has been producing for years, she said.

“We’re being very transparent in what we want to do,” she said.

McMillion, 24, grew up in nearby Logan County, but chose McDowell for the project after a visit there this summer.  She found a disquieting number of boarded up storefronts and empty buildings. She said demographers have determined the 10 communities in McDowell County are only years away from extinction. From 1950 to 2010, the county’s population diminished from 100,000 to 22,000 as the coal industry there lost jobs.

Hollow is not just a story of the coalfields, she said, but represents the experience of many other rural towns in America that are struggling to keep people, and youth in particular, in a changing world economy.

She views herself is an example. It would have been hard for her to stay in her home community and make a living as a filmmaker.

Elaine McMillion

“I consider myself part of the problem,” she said. “I want to find ways to bring us all back. It’s definitely a personal story. I feel guilty about leaving, to be honest.”

There are several other West Virginia natives working on the project, including Jason Headley who recently penned “Dear West Virginia” an open letter about loving and leaving his home state that went viral, garnering over 400 comments online.

“It’s not just my sentiment, all of us have left and are now reflecting, what can we do to make a living there and have a fulfilled life there, it’s pretty much group thinking on that,” McMillion said.

She said she’s found the people of McDowell are open and willing to tell their stories, and have a deep, inspiring love of their communities despite the challenges that have come with population loss, like schools closing and businesses shuttering.

“There’s sense of loss, but there’s a sense of pride too,” she said. “There’s a love for home you rarely see in the U.S. where people move around so much. The people in McDowell  are rooted, there’s something special about that place people can’t shake.”

She said the community’s response to the project has been positive so far.

“There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of people have volunteered already,” she said.

McMillions hopes to raise $25,000 on Kickstarter to fund the first phases of the project. Click here to donate.

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