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'Hollow' helps pioneer interactive documentary genre

by Meaghan McDonough / Beacon Correspondent • September 25, 2013

Elaine McMillion talks about her new interactive documentary, Hollow.
Elaine McMillion talks about her new interactive documentary, Hollow.

McDowell County is getting smaller. As death rates climb, birth rates dwindle, and children grow to adults and move for jobs, a sense of community seems to be disappearing. 

Hollow: An Interactive Documentary, created by Emerson MFA graduates Jeff Soyk and Elaine McMillion, shares how McDowell County, W.V. has lost around 80,000 people since the 1950s. Operated through the HTML 5 interactive site hollowdocumentary.com, the project features 30 short films, all revolving around life in the county. Spanning towns, age groups, and people, the site paints a portrait of the county that news outlets rarely do—it, as director McMillion describes, “follows residents in fluent motion.” 

As an interactive documentary, it requires the viewer to scroll through the site  to learn more. At first, the site presents only a historical and statistical view of the county: McDowell County’s population peaked in the 1950s, hitting 100,000 people, before beginning to fall in the 1960s. As of 2010, the population of McDowell County was just over 22,000 people. 

However, as the viewer delves deeper into the site, information on why the population stopped growing is more evident. Initially a coal-mining town and the rise of new technologies left many people without jobs. Crime and drug abuse rates rose throughout the 1990s, leaving the entire county with a bad reputation. Just as that fact is revealed, the real story of the website opens up: the story of the McDowell County citizens.

 The site could be described as a new media collage. Combining pictures, videos, text-based diagrams, interactive web pages, and some well-mixed sounds, the entire site is based in McDowell County. Many of the videos and photographs were taken by the county’s residents, and all of the sounds were taken on-site.

The viewer gets personally involved in the stories of the residents of McDowell County. First, the audience is introduced to Alan Johnston, a creative soul who wants his hometown of Welch to be appreciated for what it really is: a home. As he puts it, “Home is where the heart is, and my heart is here in McDowell County.” 

The short film he is featured in centers around Johnston’s life of creating things throughout McDowell County—music, photographs, and woodcarvings—pretty much anything he can get his hands on. He, like many of the other citizens of McDowell County, is distraught by the media’s portrayal of the area. At the Sept. 24 viewing of the documentary, shown in Emerson’s Bright Family Screening Room, viewers were introduced to Johnston via Skype, where he discussed his role in the documentary.

“[The project] was a real positive thing for me, my friends, my associates that I know,” stated Johnston. “It was well received by all the local residents. I haven’t heard a negative comment.”

McMillion, with the help of team members she said she met at Emerson, aimed to present a completely authentic view of smalltown America through her project. A West Virginian who graduated with her MFA in visual and media arts in 2013, McMillion said she hoped this project would encourage people to be more active viewers and raise awareness about issues of population depletion. Together, she and Soyk said they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the website.

With 530 backers, they raised $28,788, surpassing their goal of $25,000. As McMillion puts it, Kickstarter helped to “create a community around [the project] for [her] target audience.” With funds in tow, it took a total of eight months to put the entire project together and get the site up and running, according to McMillion. Since then, people all over the world, from every background and backstory, have viewed the site. McMillion said people have done exactly what they hoped they would: “lean back and listen to the story of the people.”

Still, though, McMillion said she is not completely satisfied with the response. 

“I’m a little disappointed with the government. I don’t think they value this yet,” she said at the Sept. 24 viewing. 

However, an op-ed written by McMillion was featured in the New York Times in June of 2013, helping her work gain more publicity. 

But McMillion said she has hope for the community. Though the county’s population continues to shrink each day, McMillion said she thinks those who want to stay will stay and will make things happen.

With the new community site—hollerhome.hollowdocumentary.com—now up and running, the stories of the residents of McDowell County can continue to spread. By getting more people involved within the county, the hope is that the community will begin to grow again. Until that happens, people have McMillion and Soyk’s site. With nearly three hours of footage on it, there’s certainly a lot to learn.

“The more you scroll, the more you learn, the more you see,” said McMillion

Even if McDowell County is never restored to its old-time glory, there will always be one resident who swears to stay. 

“I haven’t lived here all my life yet,” said Alan Johnston, via Skype. “But I’m working on it.”