By Kelsey Boyajian
Throughout “Hollow,” an interactive online documentary, the lush hills of Appalachia are juxtaposed beside stripped mountaintops. Through the stories of 30 individuals living in rural McDowell County, W.Va., director and producer Elaine McMillion uses a combination of web and film to spotlight the history and aspirations of the county’s 21,000 residents, and explores the uncertain future of rural America. McMillion, a West Virginia native, recently received the esteemed Peabody Award for the project.
Home to more than 100,000 residents in the 1950s, McDowell County is now among the one in three United States counties where more people leave than stay, according to the documentary trailer. As viewers scroll through a timeline of the county’s history through interviews, photographs, video and text, they witness the region’s struggles as well as the determined efforts of residents to revive their community.
Many towns in McDowell County, and Appalachia in general, have historically relied on coal as their sole industry. But as coal became less competitive in the marketplace and mountaintop removal mining increased, many jobs were cut. Since the 1970s, poverty, unemployment and drug addiction rates have skyrocketed. “Hollow” addresses the way these issues have affected the overall view of West Virginia, and attempts to dissolve these notions of Appalachia. “For many years we have been defined by an outsider perspective, which often oversimplifies and stereotypes us,” McMillion says.
Ellis Ray Williams, one resident featured in the film, offers a reason for the economic troubles in McDowell County. “We have a brain drain here,” Williams says, “The kids we send off to college, they don’t come back here, they have to go other places [for employment].” Community members have begun a movement to promote tourism in McDowell County to provide more job opportunities. By emphasizing the area’s tradition of bluegrass music as well as the recent restoration of the McDowell County Historical Society, they also hope to revitalize the arts and culture of the area.
“Just because it’s called one of the poorest counties in the U.S., heartwise, it’s not,” says Robert Diaz, a founding member of the Community Crossing Mission, one of many nonprofits hoping to restore prosperity in McDowell County.
In “Hollow,” Elaine McMillion pays homage to these individuals and landscapes, drawing from her own family’s history in rural West Virginia and shows how much heart this county — and Appalachia as a whole — still possesses.