A documentary film project gives hope to people in McDowell County.
photographed by ELAINE MCMILLION
Flood waters scrubbed away much of McDowell County in the summer of 2001 and spring of 2002. Roads, power lines, bridges, and trees knocked about in violent patterns, flattening the landscape until only patches of silt were left to dry. Longtime resident Renee Bolden recalls it all. She witnessed the flood’s unforgiving power lift a house and send it down the highway, rocketing toward her mother’s home. “A little tree caught it in the middle and stopped it,” she says. “We watched the walls peel off and flood away.”
Renee captured some of what she saw those days on camera, and some of that footage is being used in the documentary Hollow, an interactive, new-media project directed and organized by West Virginia University alumnus Elaine McMillion. The Hollow project aims to shed positive light on McDowell County and kick-start an effort to revitalize the region’s economic, social, and cultural identity. “I hate to say this, but in a lot of ways McDowell is a warning sign for a lot of our towns in the United States,” Elaine says. “The film is a reflection of these small towns that are dying and asks us, ‘What are we losing with the loss of them?’”
Elaine says community spirit and teamwork are intrinsic to the area’s personality and history. The southern West Virginia county was once home to nearly 100,000 residents and went by the nickname of “little New York” because of its varied ethnicity. Elaine says it was common for African-Americans and Russian immigrants to work side-by-side as McDowell’s coal industry blossomed, and Renee remembers porch gatherings and polite small talk among all of the people. “I don’t think anybody thinks McDowell County will ever be what it was,” Elaine says. “But it can be better.”
Hollow isn’t a solution, but it is a confidence boost, uplifting the county and reminding its people of their pride. Renee was skeptical of the project at first, though. She’s used to McDowell County getting the short end of the stick and feared the documentary would further damage its reputation. Speaking with Elaine and hearing her ideas, however, changed her opinion, and she decided to get involved.
At 36, Renee is a stay-at-home mom. She currently lives in Pineville in Wyoming County (just north of McDowell County) because of her husband’s job, but she’s made a point to stay as close to McDowell as possible. “It’s home,” she says. Throughout her life, she’s been passionate about history’s ability to give people roots, and she says Hollow is one way to put local people back in charge of their own stories.
Unlike typical documentaries, Hollow will be broken into nearly 30 segments, which will all be available on the project’s website (hollowthefilm.com). Elaine and her production team have shot and produced some of these shorts, but to really catch the perspective of McDowell residents, she made it a point to put cameras in the people’s hands—creating citizen journalists. Outside forces had controlled the images of McDowell County for too long, so she let the people direct themselves for a change. “When you put a lens between you and your life, and you’re able to play that back, it’s interesting the transformation that can happen,” Elaine says.
Elaine and the production team held workshops to train volunteers and discuss storytelling techniques, and Renee says the sessions were influential. They encouraged community members to come together and share concerns, hopes, and memories, solidifying the tone of the project. “People want to think they can’t make a difference,” Renee says. “But if we can get people together, then a difference can be made.”
Renee did not create her own short, but she did shoot material for some of Elaine’s pieces. Particularly, she revisited areas damaged in the floods. “The floods were a last straw for a lot of families, forcing them to move away, and their absence is still very noticeable,” Renee says. She says many of those people want to return to McDowell County, but they need more opportunities to make moving back reasonable.
For now, small efforts to improve the area are happening all over the place. Renee wants to start a photography club at a local high school. A community garden project is scheduled to begin in spring 2013. Several museums have popped up to document and preserve the region’s past. Many of these projects are small and under-funded, but Renee is hopeful. Hollow has invigorated the people of McDowell County. “People get down, you know, but it’s all about finding that hope,” Renee says. “We can pick ourselves up and go forward.”
Hollow will launch its interactive web experience in May 2013.