By Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
In an age of highly evolved technology, advancements in science and economic turmoil, the United States is facing a nearly silent epidemic of small, rural communities virtually vanishing from existence.
Elaine McMillion of Emerson University in Boston, Mass., who was raised in West Virginia, took notice of this problem and spearheaded a project called “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary.” The documentary has drawn participation from media professionals nationwide and even sought the help of fellow West Virginian and assistant professor in the department of Communication and Arts at Valdosta State University Jason Brown.
“There’s a lot of places across the country that have sort of been hollowed out,” said Brown. “This project is really about trying to talk about how to continue these communities.”
Focused on the community of McDowell County, W. Va., “Hollow”, is a hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary where content is created “for the community, by the community”. The project combines personal documentary video portraits, user-generated content, photography, soundscapes, interactive data and grassroots mapping on an HTML5 website designed to discuss the many stereotypes associated with the area, population loss and potential for the future. Members of the community have and will continue to take part in the filmmaking process by creating 20 of the 50 short documentaries.
“It’s not just a linear film, it’s an interactive documentary,” said Brown.
Brown was brought onto the project in large part to help procure funding through grants.
“The reason they called me is because I have received grants for films I have made,” said Brown.
Brown has played various roles ranging from producer, director, writer and more in a number of notable films and documentary.
Brown’s most recent film, “Miracle Boy,” celebrated its world premier at the Venice Film Festival in Italy in September, followed by screenings in Lewisburg, W. Va., and Charleston, W. Va., in December.
The 17-minute film tells the story of a teenage boy who is injured in a farming accident and is then subsequently bullied by other boys. Before long, one of the “mean” boys realizes the error of his ways and risks his life to try to right the wrong. It was adapted for the screen by Jake Mahaffy from a short story written by West Virginia native Pinckney Benedict. Brown was awarded the West Virginia Humanities Grant for this project.
Brown also wrote, produced and directed another West Virginia documentary called “Them That Work” in 2012. The film chronicled a behind the scenes look at the 1987 American drama “Matawan”. Brown also received a Humanities Grant for this project.
With experience working with more than a dozen films and documentaries and several other media related projects, Brown was the perfect individual to help make “Hollow” a reality.
With Brown’s help, “Hollow” raised over $30,000 through Kickstarter — the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects — and won the Tribeca Gucci Media Grant. Additionally, the West Virginia Humanities Council awarded “Hollow” $20,000 and the Tribeca Film Institute named in a New Media Grantee.
“Now, people have really gotten behind us,” said Brown. “We’re getting a lot of engagement already.”
For those who know the founding of “Hollow”, it’s easy to get behind.
According to the “Hollow” team, demographers studying population in W. Va. estimate that the 10 communities that make up McDowell County are just years away from extinction. From 1950 to 2010, the population of the county seat of Welch has diminished to 2,600; only 22,000 people remain in the county.
“Technology and time have changed it and forced people out,” said Brown.
Located in the southern coalfields, the area has experienced the effect of a boom and bust economy, but its experience is similar to many rural towns.
Over the past 25 years, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle to Appalachia, lost 10 percent or more of their population.
Population loss has negative effects not just on the economy, but on the overall quality of life for those residents who remain.
“It’s not like it’s all going away. These people still live here,” said Brown.
“Hollow” isn’t just about documentation, it’s about preservation.
“I think preservation is really important to documentary filmmakers,” said Brown.
The project is meant to empower those residents in the area through engaging them in conversations with those from afar. But how do you engage residents of a town drawing close to extinction? According to Brown, through the internet.
To make a difference or a point you don’t have to be in New York or Los Angeles, you can be on the computer in your living room in a small rural community.
Brown and about two dozen other film professionals held about four different workshops in McDowell County to teach them how to film, edit and post videos on the project’s website.
“The real benefit of this project is the people that film themselves,” said Brown.
This is where the “by the people” comes in. The McDowell County residents filming themselves not only creates a convenience and an ever-lasting momentum for the project, but it also grants the project a more realistic portrayal. It’s not Snookie and JWoww at the Jersey Shore, it’s people just like you and me confessing their trials and tribulations.
“At some point, the people will be able to completely take over the project themselves,” said Brown.
However, the making of the interactive documentary is just one part of the project, the other part is far more complex, because after all, how do you make people listen, watch or care?
While gauging an audience is a challenge every filmmaker faces, “Hollow” is so dynamic in their interaction aspect, that its success isn’t dependent on how many McDowell County residents make films, but how many people outside of McDowell County watch.
“It’s just trying to tell your authentic story,” said Brown.
Documentaries have a long-standing tradition of appealing to emotion in order to enact change. But this project is still so new and fresh, that right now, the possibilities for the outcome are endless. Even still, through all the interaction and multiple points of view, the message remains simple. To reveal truth.
According to the “Hollow” team, the problems facing small-town America do not receive as much attention as urban issues by the government or the media. Most opinions formed about small rural communities come from forces looking in, but now, at least one community in America has a voice that comes completely from them.
This raw and honest plethora of personal portrayals transform the issue of a diminishing community away from statistics into a person with a face, a voice, a family and a history.
“If you have a genuine story that people want to hear, you don’t have to go to Hollywood,” said Brown.
For more information on “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary,” visit www.hollowthefilm.com.