Interview with Elaine McMillion – producer / director of Hollow

 Elaine McMillion on Hollow

Recorded December 2012

Late last year I talked to McMillion over Skype while she made the long drive to West Virginia from her home in Boston. She talked me through how the project had evolved and described her plans for the website. Six months is a long time in the development of a project like this and some of the features she discusses have changed. But the interview gives a deep insight into her thinking in the midst of producing this innovative work. On June 20th, the Hollow team launched the site and have received national attention from The New York Times and Huffington Post. The site has attracted over 20,000 viewers from around the world and a screening locally drew in over 150 residents.

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Mandy Rose:

I thought perhaps it would be good to start by getting an understanding of your background as a documentary maker.

Elaine McMillion:

I actually have always, I guess, been a storyteller in some way, shape, or form. I started out in journalism, and I got a degree from West Virginia University in newspaper journalism – which was writing. The landscape of journalism had changed drastically since I went into my undergraduate studies in 2005 – you can’t now just be a writer, or just a photographer. You have to take a multimedia approach to things.

 So getting a writing degree wasn’t really enough for me, and I decided to start a multimedia journalism programme where we covered stories all around West Virginia and rural areas – to cover under-represented communities, but also to do media training with the local journalists. So I was really driven to move away from writing, in a sense, and go with more visual storytelling. I’m self-taught; I took photography classes, but I am totally self-taught when it comes to filmmaking and videography. After that, I went to the Washington Post, where I was in the documentary video department. That was a great experience, and the Washington Post was, and still is, producing some really thoughtful long form content – documentary films – based in news journalism. After that, I challenged myself to see if I could make a feature-length film, to see if I was capable of doing something like that.

So I made my first documentary in 2009. It was called ‘Lincoln County Massacre’, and it’s about police brutality in West Virginia. It was a case in 1980 that was brushed under the rug [at the time] by the state police who were charged with brutalising a group of motorcycle riders. That [documentary] went well, and went to a couple of festivals and won some awards. After that, I was the co-director and co-producer of  ‘The Lower Nine’, a film that I moved to New Orleans to shoot with Matthew Hashiguchi. It looks at what’s happening in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina. That film was a feature-length documentary. There was also a short, 20-minute version that has been travelling round the festivals all this year and last year.

I’ve been an editor on some feature-length documentaries, which I love. I have been a location scout producer on fiction films, and in 2010 I moved to Boston, and decided that I wanted to get the theory behind my work – because I’m self-taught – so I entered an MFA programme; a Master’s in Fine Art and Visual Media Art, at Emerson College. I finished my degree in the Spring of 2013 and many team members on Hollow are previous students of the programme. In Boston, I used to be an associate producer at Northern Lights Productions. I have freelanced in Boston, but for the past year, my life has pretty much been consumed by Hollow, and working with my team on that.

MR:            You’ve packed a lot in, in the last five years. (Laughter.) I wonder if there are people in the field of documentary who have influenced your thinking.

EM:            Well, I’m inspired by a lot of female directors and filmmakers –  the Jesus Camp directors Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, as well as Barbara Kopple.

MR:                                    Harlan County USA?

EM:            Yes. That was probably one of the first documentaries I ever saw. I think it was because it was so regional; I grew up in West Virginia, and that, and ‘Dancing Outlaw’, which is a PBS documentary about Jesco White, a dancer from West Virginia, they were the first documentaries I saw as a kid, and her [Kopple’s] style in Harlan County is so phenomenal, and the narrative devices she uses for the people, and it’s really allowing the people to speak for themselves, and not stereotyping them. That was something that I really admired. Other filmmakers – I like the visual styles of certain filmmakers, and I have studied cinema verité, observational filmmaking. The Maysles Brothers I absolutely love. And I am always really inspired by females who have created their own approach in this world of filmmaking and interactive media.

I am always really inspired by females who have created their own approach in this world of filmmaking and interactive media.

MR:            So tell me, then, a little bit more about the genesis of Hollow; how you have built the project, and the shape it has taken.

EM:            Well, in 2009, when I left West Virginia and moved to Washington D.C., I looked around me and saw that I wasn’t the only young person leaving; that most of the people I graduated with were leaving. I read a book called “Hollowing out the Middle: What Rural Brain-Drain Means for America”. It’s a book by two sociologists who lived in Iowa and studied the out-migration patterns of youth there, and sort of talked about the ripple effect that that has throughout the local and national society.

That really inspired me to start looking into the statistics of out-migration and population loss in West Virginia, a place that I knew a lot of us were leaving, and what really shocked me is that when I started looking into this, there was a list of dying and revived towns in West Virginia, and I grew up in Logan County which is right next door to McDowell County, where Hollow is based. In McDowell County, there are 10 incorporated towns, and all 10 of those towns are on this list, so they’re projected to be gone. No-one will be there if things don’t change. That’s just because their death rate is higher than their birth rate. In 1950, the population peaked at 100,000 in the county, and now they have around 20,000. So that’s caused a lot of schools to be shut down; a lot of businesses have left. A lot of houses are abandoned there. When the jobs left, the people left. There was no work for them.

So my first question was: what is lost? What are we, as a society, accepting when we allow places like this to die? Are we losing some form of culture? What is being lost and why should we care? Maybe if we don’t care, why don’t we care? So at first, the idea was sparked in my mind to explore what the story of [the McDowell County] community was from that perspective, because they’ve seen a lot of changes. I originally thought of the project as a linear film that would document this rural brain-drain, and this youth exodus out of McDowell County. However, once I went there and started shooting, there were some really phenomenal stories of pride and hope; they’re not giving up. Maybe they don’t have all the resources they need to actually make things happen; to make things work the way they’d like them to work. I really started thinking of this as a project that wouldn’t just document, but maybe inspire people, to get involved.

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I had never been involved with any type of community organising, or any type of social action in this direct way. The previous films I’d made had been covering social and cultural issues – contemporary issues – but this is very much a community participatory project where we’re saying to them, “You tell us the themes of your community, and what you want for the future.”

I think that Hollow is perfectly suited to push the boundaries of new media by using this technique, and this is a story that’s changing every day – the McDowell County story is very different from when I stopped shooting in September. I’m actually going back next week to re-shoot updates, because businesses have closed; some good things have happened, as well, but this is a story that evolves over time. It’s paired with the idea that we want to increase the community efficacy between people, and really ignite social change, and increase awareness locally.

We felt that this new media could be a really interesting tool to track real-time data; to create a community online that sort of recreates the story of McDowell, which is the story of rural America. They are the post-industrial towns that you hear so much about, but oftentimes that post-industrial town story is not a very personal one. It is often told from an economic standpoint, and we wanted this to be very character-driven and very personal.

So it drove us into new media, and there is so much rich data associated with McDowell County. Oftentimes McDowell County makes the state news headlines for being the most obese or having the highest overdose rate for prescription pill abuse. The statistics are used often to paint a very specific picture, and it’s a lot easier to consume these statistics and these datasets without actually seeing a story attached to them, or hearing an actual individual that’s affected by them. So if you take that data and turn it on its head a little bit, put the qualitative with the quantitative, then maybe that will provide a richer storytelling experience and people will understand the challenges a little bit. The story is much more nuanced than much of the media likes you to believe. Statistics are black and white, and the stories add another multi-dimensional layer to that.

It’s not a story that I can ever edit to a 75-minute film and feel comfortable putting a title slide at the end saying ‘The End’, because I really believe this story is something that is changing. I really hope that the project actually encourages them to start making those changes that they have always wanted to.

I knew that it was a story that evolved over time, and a story that involved some really interesting interactive data. It’s a story about geography and people. So all these things sort of make this story perfect for a layered and interactive way to tell the story. It’s not a story that I can ever edit to a 75-minute film and feel comfortable putting a title slide at the end saying ‘The End’, because I really believe this story is something that is changing. I really hope that the project actually encourages them to start making those changes that they have always wanted to.

We have already seen things happen; this summer I held three community workshops at the high school. Each month I was there, we’d get together, and I’d do some screenings of the stuff that they had been shooting, and stuff I had been shooting, and then they actually wrote out stories, and we did story time workshops. But we’d also just talk about how they felt about the media portrayals of their area, and they made lists of how they felt – what the discourse was that was normally talked, or the words that were used to talk about them in the past, and the words that they feel should be used to describe their community.

They were two very different lists, and that sort of hybrid approach to the film-making process, where I was working with the community. They were controlling content, creating content, and I was learning from them just as much as they were learning how to shoot video. That hybrid approach created this really, really tight-knit community around the project, and we could sort of help guide them a little bit in their initiative. So we have a woman who has been wanting to have a community centre for years, who just hasn’t had the resources she’s needed, and we’ve been able – I hope – to open some doors that will get that started this Spring, which is super-exciting for us, to be a part of something that is actually off the ground and happening.

I think that’s what I always try to explain to people; the story of Hollow, yes it’s an interactive documentary. Yes, it’s technically a website; it’s online. But really, what I am most passionate about is the stuff that is happening behind the scenes.

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So, the actual change on the ground. After production, our biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to keep the interactive experience fresh with what is happening on the ground. If a user was to hear about the story of McDowell tomorrow, and something amazing happens three months from now, can they subscribe to a character, or can they get updates? How do we make this a story that evolves over time and really use new media for what it’s for? Our solution is providing the residents with, a community tool they are using to update their initiatives and stories. We believe that communication is key for change and progress and we had many residents express a need for a central place, beyond social media, where they could have a calendar, post events, share goals and work together. We hope that this WordPress blog answers many of their questions. For the user not in McDowell County, they can access this tool by placing their cursor toward the top of their screen. An “updates” tab will drop down and users can see the recent community stories (sorted by the resident’s names and initiatives) and subscribe to the blog to receive updates. There’s an opportunity to really tap into some interesting real-time storytelling techniques; it’s not just the canned experience. It is something that’s changing, and that is what we’re hoping to reflect online.

MR:            That sounds really interesting. So, in terms of that kind of thinking – that kind of iterative thinking during the process – trying to figure out how you can actually make it something live and responsive – how does the team work to enable those things to be possible?

EM:            Well, we actually have a girl on our team who is the community organiser. She talks to the community members once or twice a week. We get updates from her. She’s logging all this. In the actual interactive [experience], the video portraits – which were shot over the summer and are still being shot by the community – are going to be seen as little time capsules; moments in time that maybe have changed. But there’s going to be that whole portion of the website devoted to these updates. That portion of the website will actually live alone and the community will be able to use it as a tool, as well.  So however they use this tool will feed into the interactive experience. So it relies on them being motivated enough to update it and keep the dialogue going. It is an interactive community newspaper that overlays the video portraits, so after, for example, you watch Mary Lewis’s story about health and how she wants to start a fitness centre, you will get an alert that there is an update to her story and you can visit the update section at the top of the window and read about it.

We’re really trying to create meaningful calls to action, and ways that people can get involved, because that’s one of the main challenges that McDowell County and residents all across rural America face. It’s that they’re very disconnected from each other, but they are all facing very similar challenges. I think that an interesting dialogue could start between towns – Iowa, for example, and West Virginia – that they can learn from each other. So the videos won’t change, they’ll stay the same but through photos, text, audio, and shorter videos, this community newspaper tool will actually alert you, and you will be able to subscribe to things so that people visit the site actually feel like they’re involved and that their presence on this website isn’t simply to click ‘play’. We want to get past that type of interaction, this isn’t an interactive documentary because you choose a video and watch it, we want this to be meaningful interaction. We want someone to walk away from this having learned something and feeling different about something, sort of this rite of passage thing we want to happen.

We wanted to create that non-linear experience that wasn’t fragmented.

So we’re challenging the people who are participating, hoping that they will want to be as invested and involved. The way we’re trying to do that is an equal balance of technology and cinema. I think that’s one of the things that I see a lot of interactive documentaries lacking: is creating that emotional arc, and real investment in the characters, place, and story. What we’re really avoiding is database storytelling, where you simply sort the videos and you watch what you’re interested in. For example, if you’re interested in the economy, you watch those. Instead, we piece together environments in which people’s stories will be embedded, so it’s a constant flow of environments, story, voice and soundscapes. There’s never a point where the videos stop and you’re just looking at the screen not knowing what to do next. You’re always thrown into a new environment, and it’s a constant flow. You always have the choice to go in five directions at once, or you have the choice to sit back. We wanted to create that non-linear experience that wasn’t fragmented.

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We want it to feel connected, because the people in the community are connected. It’s important that the interaction is meaningful, that there is an emotional thread throughout all this, because this is a living, breathing story, that we feel very passionate about.

MR:            I’m just trying to think about process. Okay, well, let’s pursue one side of this, which is about the relationships with the local participants. I have looked at the terrific feedback you’ve got, that’s cited in the Community Feedback section of the site. It seems that those workshops have been quite a powerful experience for people. Do you feel now that you have got a core group of very involved people?

EM:            Typically the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve tried to be invested in everyone’s story, that they’re sharing with me. But I got very involved with these people’s lives, which I haven’t done before; I really care about their future. So we had to take one step closer, and what that meant is creating these bonds with people. And there’s a lot of trust issues in McDowell County, because they have been so poorly misrepresented, and under-represented by the media. Most people that come to McDowell to do a documentary are telling a story that is negative. Rarely do you see anything that tries to tell a balanced story, so we really needed to gain that trust of the people and let them know that we’re invested in helping this story reach the people that it needs to reach so that things can change. That really created about 10 or 15 active individuals who were already working on initiatives when we got there, and we just were able to encourage them a little bit more. A lot of the County, a lot of the residents, have sort of given up at this point. They have had 60 years of decline, and feel like there have been so many walls; why keep trying?

There are some discouraging feelings around some residents, so actually getting them involved and encouraging them that they can be active participants in change has been difficult, but we hope that with the website, more people will get involved, and we think they will. Even after production, more and more people have been contacting us and wondering how they can get involved, so, if you think about it, four months of production really wasn’t enough. It would have been nice to have been there for an entire year working with them, because the community kept growing. There were more people at the last workshop we did than the first one – but there’s still definitely a core group of people who are totally invested in the future of this place, who don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, and want to see things happen. Those are the people that we’re really catering to in this production, and the post-production process. We hope that they can communicate it with their communities to get involved after it launches.

 I really wanted them to take ownership over this, and they have. It is exciting to see them trust it and want to be a part of it and see the potential for something like this to help communicate these stories to a broader audience. That’s really exciting for me.

So it’s very obvious that there is a very small but active community built around this, and that’s really important to me. I’m not from McDowell. I’m from West Virginia, but I am not from there, and I really wanted them to take ownership over this, and they have. It is exciting to see them trust it and want to be a part of it and see the potential for something like this to help communicate these stories to a broader audience. That’s really exciting for me.

MR:            So there’s the project as a support, and encouragement for local initiatives around self-determination, and then there’s the project looking out to the wider audience. How do you see those two things working together?

EM:            Well, I think that there are very broad issues – what we’re doing is giving you micro-examples of a very broad issue that you see all over the country. For example, issues of housing; the lack of housing, or houses that were last built in the ‘40s and that are decrepit. When industry leaves – no matter what town it is – if the infrastructure is not maintained and not kept up, then it’s going to fail. So we’re showing you very specific issues in McDowell, but I really think that people will be able to make the connections to their town and their county.

Throughout the experience the user has the ability to add their story or thoughts to the documentary. Users can input their experience of leaving a small town in the “brain drain” data visualization and share places they have seen benefit from tourism on the Google map provided. Additionally, we’re using the Instagram API to start a discussion of the meaning of home. We are asking people to tag the photos that remind them of home with #hollerhome. Those photos are brought into the experience in a section of the documentary that defines home.

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We hope that this will draw some parallels; we have already had people from Ohio and Maine and different states like Vermont saying, “This is just like so-and-so town in my community.” So it’s not going to be that difficult for the audience that we have – one of the audiences – the audience that is familiar with rural America, and does know about the lack of infrastructure, and the things happening there like the lack of jobs. These stories are universal stories. They’re global stories; displacement, a story that you could find in any country in this world, or home; the meaning of home. All these stories are very relevant. You don’t have to be from West Virginia to understand these.

MR:            In some ways what you have been describing sounds like a community media project. I was thinking about the business of you working at these two levels; the local level and the wider audience. That’s really interesting – the use of statistics – comparative statistics – to think about where you are versus what you’re watching.

EM:            Well, McDowell County residents will probably come to the main experience once. They will check it out. Maybe a couple of different times, but that’s not their tool. They’ll get updates from the community tool, and that’s how they can get involved locally, so while you [the wider audience] have access to this newspaper I described, that is really built for local change and local action.

Then the experience provides context; historical background – how the community got to where they are. It provides ideas for the future, and it’s more aesthetically pleasing. Whereas the community tool is something that residents can go to, click on, and see how they can get involved this month in their community. (That’s one of the initiatives that our participants have identified.) Most importantly, the HTML5 documentary site serves to represent the residents in McDowell as they see fit. It’s something they can be proud of and own. It’s their story. So there are two different websites, and the tool is a very basic site where you’re not going to get lost in the story. You’re simply there to find initiatives and find out how to get involved.

To read the rest of the interview, click here. Also, make sure you check out Mandy’s post  ‘American Futures – Hollow & Question Bridge’ which discusses both Elaine’s project and Question Bridge and, if you haven’t already, experience Hollow here.