Interactive film ‘Hollow’ brings small-town Appalachia to life online

Posted by | June 14, 2013

Hollow, an interactive documentary about the people and issues of McDowell County, WV, launches June 20 – West Virginia’s 150th statehood celebration day.

The immersive, online experience is the brainchild of West Virginia native Elaine McMillion. She worked with a team of  designers, programmers, journalists, filmmakers and community members to combine video portraits, user-generated content, data, grassroots mapping and soundscapes on an HTML5 site and an accompanying community tool to tell the story of those living in boom-and-bust areas.

Elaine McMillion

Elaine McMillion

McMillion got the idea for the project in 2009 when she  read ‘Hollowing Out The Middle,’ and learned more about youth exodus, brain drain and the many dying communities across America. Growing up in West Virginia, she was very familiar with the many places that are often tagged as “ghost towns.”

“I knew that although these places had lost their populations there were still people committed to staying there with interesting stories to tell,” McMillion said.

The hands-on approach gave community members the opportunity to get involved with the filmmaking process. Various locals, from ages 9 to 65, participated in capturing stories and their environments for Hollow. Fifteen of those short community-shot films will accompany filmmaker documentaries featuring nearly 30 residents.

Working with the residents of Appalachia allowed for them to take back their stories, which are so often controlled and told by outsiders. “For many years we have been defined by an outsider perspective, which often oversimplifies and stereotypes us,” McMillion said. “I wanted to collaborate with the people of McDowell to collect stories and get a more authentic view of their day-to-day challenges and dreams for the future.”

McMillion hopes individuals across the nation, not just in West Virginia and Appalachia, connect with the stories featured throughout the site.

“While in a meeting with Wendy Levy (director or New Arts Axis) she said, ‘This project makes West Virginia feel like the rest of America,’ as she explored the site,” McMillion said. “That is exactly what we are trying to do – bring the stories of Southern West Virginia into the homes of people all over the world. These are universal stories of defining home and displacement that people all over can relate to. The participants of Hollow are all very talented and exceptional individuals who are active in their communities — they break stereotypes.”

And with a community at the center of the project, the Hollow team strives to make on-the-ground impact through storytelling and collaboration.

“By creating an online experience, Hollow shares a new image and story of McDowell County through the participation of community members, generates widespread awareness of issues surrounding small towns throughout our nation and across the world and encourages conversation and efforts to plan for the future,” said Jeff Soyk, Hollow art director.


“We’re like the backyard of the nation – Southern West Virginia,” said Marsha Timpson, a participant of Hollow and executive director of Big Creek People in Action in Caretta, WV. “Your front yard’s for looks. You got your pretty flowers and your pretty bushes, and, you know, that’s what you want people to see. You don’t want them to see your backyard – because back there’s where all the work gets done. So I don’t really mind being the backyard. I do mind being ignored.”

On June 20, along with the launch of the online experience, The New York Times OpDocs will feature “The Backyard,” which features Timpson and other residents from McDowell County. And until launch, Hollow team members are urging Instagram users to share images that represent home for them with the hashtag #hollerhome. These images will populate a portion of the online experience.

The Hollow experience will be live at Screenings will be held in McDowell County on Saturday, June 22 at 9 p.m. at the Martha H. Moore Riverfront Park in Welch, and Sunday, June 23 at 7 p.m. in at Big Creek People in Action in Caretta.

Additionally, the Hollow team invites residents to share their stories and explore the site from 3 to 6 p.m. at the McDowell Public Library’s computer labs on June 22 and from 3 to 6 pm on Sunday at Big Creek People in Action’s labs. Hollow team members will also be sharing a booth with West Virginia photographer and author Betty Rivard, at the north side of the Capitol all day on June 22. Starting on June 24, Digiso will host a storytelling booth in Charleston allowing residents to share their stories from small towns in West Virginia.

The project is supported by Tribeca Film Instiitute and the West Virginia Humanities Council.

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