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Interview Elaine McMillon


Hollow is both a participatory project and interactive documentary currently in post production. It is made with and by the community of McDowell County, West Virginia, a mining area suffering from industrial decline and the associated population loss. The work engages with the community who have taken part in the filmmaking process by creating 20 of the 50 short documentaries. The final interactive project will combine their content with other video portraits and interactive data. Hollow was selected for the research because of its approach towards the community and its setting in a rural area suffering from population shrinkage. A topic that is becoming more and more relevant in the European urban debate. I interviewed the director Elaine Mc Million about the project and its current progress.

Can you tell me about the background to the project both your personal motivations and inspirations from documentary history? 

I grew up next door in Logan County which is in a very similar situation to McDowell County. I grew up in a family where I was the only one that doesn’t have a job associated with the coal industry, so my dad is a coal miner, my brother is a coal miner, my female cousins are nurses working in clinics that treat coal miners, so the industry is very tightly woven there. So I am very familiar with the situation and can sympathise a lot with the issues in McDowell. In 2009 I graduated from West Virginia University and then read a book called “Hollowing out the Middle – What Rural Brain Drain Means for America” the book is all about young people leaving small towns across America specifically this town in Iowa, but it almost felt like the entire book was about West Virginia, you could just replace Iowa with West Virginia. So I have a personal connection to the story it because I am definatley part of that problem.

McDowell itself has a really bad reputation, even within the state, it’s where a lot of the stereotypes come from that are about Appalachia. The mainstream media go to McDowell to show poverty, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, for some reason it is always the place to go. So I went, because obviously there are a lot of issues there and I was surprised by the amount of interesting people I met in one day. The first guy I met was an artist who was painting a mural on an abandoned building, there is not a bigger sign of pride and hope than that. So there is so much more to this story than what we think.

My original thinking about this project was to create a linear film, a straight forward documentary. A lot of the documentary work I am inspired by is direct cinema/cinema verite work that is observational, but there is still a journalism side of me that wants to investigate things a bit more and not just settle with what is on the screen. So I left that day rethinking this as a linear film, because I had five interesting conversations with people that came from very different perspectives and had different roles within that community. I thought this needs to be something that allows for many voices to be heard on the same playing field this couldn’t be contrived and edited and it should not be linear. It should have different entry points the community should be able to submit stuff and be part of it and the interactive side.

Once we decided it was going to be interactive we really took a survey of whats out there, and what we think works and doesn’t. I love High Rise I think its a beautiful project, Out my Window and One Millionth Towerare great because of their community participatory part. Also Welcome to Pine Point because it really creates that cultural attachment that is often lost on the web it’s sort of like reading a visual storybook, but it really accompolishes creating that emotional tie to a people and their place.

Has the documentary been a catalyst for any wider changes in the area?

We definatley created that moment for the community to establish the goals that they wanted to achieve. We had storytelling workshops where we got together and one resident Shawn talked about his initiatives to help promote tourism in the area to clean up the town, and we helped them to map and navigate all the things that were bothering them and to talk about the very early planning stages of how we can get these things changed.

Was there a wider process already happening within the community or did the documentary lead the discussion?

It’s kind of hard to say because, the community garden has always been an idea, people have always wanted to do it, but I think we had a big part in encouraging it. It was just a matter of saying you know you can do this, here are some resources and grants you can get to do this, here are some people you should know. It was through the process of the documentary they realised there was a lot more that they could be doing. Before we held the workshops I think they felt a bit stuck, they had these ideas but did not really know where to start. In one of the last interviews I did the guy said:

“I just hope we are able to keep up the momentum that you have established here, because before you came here we didn’’t have a group of people and now we do because you have brought us together through this project, and have really given us the opportunity for change at this point.”

I think it’s a difficult place and it’s just difficult to live there daily, they just have so many issues that sometimes the bigger things get lost and it has been our goal and mission to keep them on track.

How were the storytelling and mapping workshops organised?

We had three storytelling workshops, the first one was really an introduction to the project, explaining the work and material, doing some video training and having discussions around representation. The community talked about the words the media used to describe them in the past and how they feel when they talk about home. We created a list for each and they couldn’t be more different.

The second workshop was where people hand wrote stories and submitted photos and talked about a lot different types of things. The final workshop was all about really finding those initiatives that people were going to work on from August 2012 until we launch. We established a calendar and a private facebook group where we could keep contact.

The mapping work was kind of a wild card, some people don’t want to shoot videos but they wanted to take part in the project. So we used a weather balloon with a Go-Pro to take high res imagery of the town. The goal was to take images and map them out to allow people to do resource mapping. There is a lot of unused land and we thought this would be an interesting way to let them see that. In the actual interactive doc the maps are a behind the scenes element they are not so much part of the stories that we see but they will be featured in the community tool where the community can actually log in and start mapping things so its more a resource for the community.

Hollow is one of the new forms of documentaries that has used crowdfunding and Kickstarter quiet successfully how have you benefited from having an engaged audience throughout the process?

I have used kickstarter in the past, it’s great for money for linear films but with the interactive format its so valuable because we will have 500 instant visitors to the site. Having that audience has been an amazing plus, because we were able to send out a survey to our kickstarter backers saying Why did you give us money for this? are you interested in the story or the form? what were the reasons? so we have been able to get a better picture and understanding of what their expectations are. You never have to do this with a linear film. With the interactive approach you have to consider all the user pathways, if it falls flat it’s because you havent considered the different approaches from the different users. We found out that 90% gave to the project because of the storytelling, only 2 out of the 500 had seen an interactive documentary before, so for us its really powerful that they can experience this new form of technology and be really introduced to this new world. We have always said that the story leads and the technology complements and evolves so we never wanted to do something because it’s trendy and to get a lot of attention from the tech, if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story. So we are trying to get that balance that allows you to lean forward and interact but also that which allows you to lean back and enjoy cinema.


This interview forms part of the bigger research project entitled Participatory Documentary [and the city] carried out by dmau with support from the Dutch Creative Industry Funds