The Wild and wonderful youth abscond West Virginia

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • September 20, 2012

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Elaine McMillion on the set of Hollow.
courtesy of Jason Headley
Elaine McMillion on the set of Hollow.
courtesy of Jason Headley

Two Emerson grad students are affording the residents of McDowell County in West Virginia a conduit to let their voices be heard. Hollow: An Interactive Documentary explores the issues of the 10 McDowell communities that make up the county, focusing primarily on population decline caused by youth exodus and its aftermath.

The project is directed by Elaine McMillion, a West Virginia native, who is currently in the MFA program for visual and media arts at Emerson. Jeff Soyk, also in program, serves as the interactive art director.

McMillion came up with the idea for the documentary in 2009 and has been working on making it a reality ever since.

“People don’t really know a lot about West Virginia besides the stereotypes,” said McMillion, who also grew up in a rural area of West Virginia. “I want the people to show what it’s really like living there.”

The mass migration of youth that have left their homes in search of more opportunity in other regions of the country has devastated McDowell county. According to the project’s website, the phenomenon may make McDowell County “face extinction.”  The circumstance desecrates the economy for those who stay behind.

McMillion spent the summer training the residents on how to use video cameras to record their experiences. From there, they submitted their stories to the website, which are comprised of all of their user-generated video portraits, photographs, soundscapes, and interactive data.

“[McDowell County’s] unemployment rate is above the national average, and their education is under scrutiny,” said McMillion. “We hope these videos encourage the community to work together for the future.”

The Tribeca Film Institute helped fund the project by awarding a grant between $50,000 and $100,000 for the undertaking in August. The documentary received an additional $28,000 from the online project funding website, Kickstarter.

“We are getting this funding and support because of the story,” said McMillion. “We know our story and are very connected to the storytellers.”

Soyk has no doubt the power the product can bring to McDowell county.

“An interactive documentary is a no-brainer because documentaries are meant to involve the audience,” said Soyk. “We want this idea to be taken up by others, to be spread across the country.”

A previous version of this article stated that the amount was undisclosed. It is between $50,000 and $100,000.