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Filling America's Hollow


Young Elaine


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The America where Elaine McMillion grew up is one we all want to remember. It was a place where the walk from school to the doughnut shop was short. The same for the walk to the bowling alley. It’s where after school, she walked to her mother’s workplace at the jeweler’s and took her homework to the back room. It sounds peaceful, and secure.

These memories are of Logan County, WV, in the heart of coal country. Years after her graduation from West Virginia University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, McMillion went to McDowell County, just next door to the scenes of her childhood.

You may have heard of it. In truth, McDowell is talked of often. The county has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in West Virginia. And it has high rates of other things, too. Welfare dollars. Drug use. Teen pregnancy.

Those in the wider world may know nothing else about the 22,000 people who live there.

For McMillion, that means they really don’t know them at all.

But she does. The documentary filmmaker lives in Boston now, where she is creating films and pursuing a master’s degree. She doesn’t have to learn to see beyond the stubborn Appalachian stereotypes of hillbillies with dirty feet. She saw reality a long time ago. For her, returning to Boston is more of a culture shock than visiting McDowell.

It was her own exodus to elsewhere that prompted her to create Hollow, a participatory documentary that will allow McDowell residents to tell their own story and organize to reverse the decline that’s been upon them since coal left.

When she looks at McDowell, she sees potential.

“People can’t understand when I say that, when they haven’t been there and haven’t met the people,” she said. “And the reason I see potential is because I met so many people this summer that when you actually get them in the same room around a table, things are going to happen.”

No one can turn away from the truth. And the truth is that McDowell is dying. Of the ten towns in McDowell, all were listed in a WVU research report as dying, and that’s the highest rate of any county in the state.

“That’s alarming to me to think about what’s lost,” she said. “’Who are the people that still remain?’ was the question that I had. And how do they feel about the things that they’ve seen happen and the change that they’ve seen?”

There’s an outsider view that says the people inside the towns are just getting by on existing without trying to change their lot. But she’s found that this is not true.

“That was where the vision came from,” McMillion said. “It was a sense of urgency that I had to examine these ten towns in the county but also going against the stereotypes and the things that people think they know about McDowell County and southern West Virginia and sort of flipping that on its head and trying to tell a broader picture of what’s happening through the experiences of the people who live it every single day.”

She knows the county won’t be like it was at its height, but she believes the people can have a better quality of life.

Hollow has become about more than finding a way back home for McMillion. When she sent early footage to people across the country, before the project properly launched, she discovered its universality.

“All of them said something that was really interesting, which was that this could be any small town in America—which is the point,” she said.

Some of those who have taken notice are themselves often noticed. The Tribeca Film Institute awarded the project a highly selective new media grant. Morgan Spurlock, who brought us the documentary Super Size Me, wrote on Twitter, “Hollow is an idea that could change small towns across the United States!”

And regular people voted for Hollow to become a reality with their own dollars to help the project exceed its $25,000 Kickstarter goal.

McMillion had read the sociological analysis, “Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America,” and knew that when rural towns lost their young people, it was a sign that their long illness was terminal.

Hollow became a truthful marketing piece to allow everyone to see what was really happening. Google Images of McDowell show the clinical in maps; the sensational in pictures of floods; and the hackneyed—the fourth image is a dirty, half-naked child sitting on a stoop.

But McMillion’s initial photos and video show people who don’t symbolize a troubled rural America. They are living their lives. Among the rivers and forests are people working, making music, fishing, worshipping, swimming, attending the fair, finishing homework.

This image of the county is so rarely portrayed that a local playwright and poet told McMillion that the public had likely never seen pictures of the county like those captured in Hollow.

The project’s most useful aspect isn’t for outsiders. It has connected people who have been battling alone to allow them to battle together. Since Hollow began this summer, residents have started a community garden, they’re documenting their community, and they’re inspired.

“I had no clue how big of an effect myself and the project would have on people,” McMillion said. “But some people just felt so inspired by ‘Someone believes in us to live down here four months and work with us and try to tell our story, so why don’t we believe in ourselves?’

“I left valuing and seeing the smaller things that should happen that will lead to bigger things because the people of McDowell County have to prove that they’re something worth saving in order to get any help.” 

At the close of the summer, McMillion went back to Boston with eight terabytes of footage. Five cameras purchased as part of the project remain in McDowell until the end of the year, available to residents as they document their story.

McMillion’s artistic revolution continues to gain notice. She spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Camden International Film Festival to share the project’s blueprints with other filmmakers.

Raising thousands of dollars, gathering a team of young professionals—many of them WVU graduates—and connecting with an entire community took a great deal of work. McMillion made calls and sent e-mails every day for weeks. Yet it wasn’t hard to believe in the project.

“Whenever people would say ‘What do you do if you don’t raise your Kickstarter money?’ I didn’t really know how to respond to that because I could not believe for one second we wouldn’t make it work,” she said.

“A lot of people and myself see McDowell County like a blank canvas,” she said. “I see all of rural America like a blank canvas. It’s just waiting for young people to come back and really make it what they want it to be.”