SHEPHERDSTOWN — Just a week after winning a Peabody Award for her film “Hollow,” Logan native Elaine McMillion will be in Shepherdstown Friday for a free screening of her documentary.
Regarded as the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for television and radio work, the 73rd-annual Peabody winners were announced April 2. The honor is the latest in a string for “Hollow” since its debut on June 20, 2013 – West Virginia’s 150th birthday.
McMillion, a 26-year-old West Virginia University grad, spent close to a year in McDowell to make the interactive documentary examining the pride and struggles associated with life in what’s perhaps the most hardscrabble place in our hardscrabble state, an area beset with drug addiction, high unemployment, health problems and other woes.
Once home to nearly 100,000 residents – it boasted West Virginia’s third-highest population in 1950 – McDowell’s fortunes shifted with the decline of the coal industry. The hollowing out of the state’s southernmost county continues to decline, to just 21,326 residents in the 2010 Census.
On Friday, McMillion will host a 7 p.m. screening of “Hollow” as part of the Shepherdstown Film Society’s spring series. The university’s Common Reading Program and Coal Country Tours are co-sponsoring the event, which will include a discussion period with McMillion following the 90-minute documentary.
The filmmaker counts herself as part of the problem – namely, the exodus of young people not only from McDowell but from much of West Virginia, she wrote in a 2013 blog for The New York Times.
She grew up outside Charleston, where her father depended on the coal industry for a paycheck, just as her great-grandfather and grandfather had. “Layoffs, shutdowns and sometimes promotions prompted my family to move 10 times before I reached age 12,” she wrote.
After earning her degree in journalism, she moved out of state, first to D.C. to work on multimedia projects for The Washington Post and later to Boston.
“I dearly loved this place, one of the most beautiful areas in the country, and I’m proud of my family’s roots, but there were few opportunities in the area for an aspiring filmmaker,” she wrote in the Times. “Today, I feel a sense of guilt that I left my home state behind to chase my dreams. … I would like to find solutions that could help us return.”
Her documentary takes an innovative approach – making use of traditional professional footage and archival photos but also submissions from dozens of residents in the form of Instagram photos, short videos and text.
McMillion and other members of her team led storytelling workshops in McDowell starting in 2012, and provided community members with camcorders and other multimedia tools.
“When I first went down there [to McDowell], I sort of thought of this as a linear film that maybe would follow a couple characters: you’d press play, sit back, and watch,” she told Filmmaker Magazine last year. “But after I met all these amazing people in one day and started talking with the team as we started coming together, I kept really thinking about all the data that was there like from the census and other forms, that we could use. And there were historical photographs that showed what this place was, and we just thought it would be a really rich new media experience, more so than a linear film, that would allow more voices to be heard and allow participation from the community to shoot their own content.”
McMillion found funding for her work through a Kickstarter campaign, a Tribeca Film Institute New Media Grant and the West Virginia Humanities Council. Reviewers have praised “Hollow” for dissolving stereotypes of West Virginia, Appalachia and small-town life in general.