News Column

'Hollow' Interactive Documentary Opens

June 20, 2013

Dave Boucher

Some things are just better understood once they're seen.

That's the case with "Hollow" - an interactive documentary available starting today - and the story it tells, explained filmmaker Elaine McMillion.

"I think that for most people who have never seen an interactive documentary, this will be brand new to them," McMillion said.

She originally hoped to release the film in May, but the small team quickly realized the project would take more time to complete. As it considered other release dates, the team decided to launch the documentary on West Virginia's birthday.

In the course of four years - McMillion said she came up with the idea in 2009 but started filming in 2011 - the Hollow team compiled hundreds of hours of film. McMillion, who has been in McDowell County for the last month, said the team has been working on the film until the last minute.

They whittled their footage to nearly 30 short documentaries, with about 13 videos coming from community members who used cameras provided by the team. The total project runs about 90 minutes, McMillion said. But viewers can experience the film in much shorter segments if they want.

Viewers choose which short videos to watch on the project's website. There are also "game elements" that reward viewers for correct responses by giving them access to extra photographs that can be used as computer desktop wallpaper.

"You don't just press a button and sit back and watch it," McMillion said.

Broken into six parts, the project focuses on every aspect of McDowell County. The once-booming coal community has suffered significantly in recent decades. It population has dwindled, and officials combat poverty and drug abuse.

Viewers first meet and learn about four characters in a sequence about health, family and education. The next sequence uses other characters to discuss infrastructure and religion, McMillion said.

A section called "When Coal was King" delves into the history of the mine industry and the role it continues to play in McDowell County. The film wraps up with a sequence about people who run businesses and ideas for the future.

"I think it will be something new for the audience; I think it will be educational," McMillion said.

As an online interactive film, "Hollow" offers viewers the ability to follow up on characters. While many documentaries provide a brief "where are they now" segment at the end, McMillion said viewers can subscribe to people in the film. The people will provide updates about themselves and the community using the film website, she said.

McMillion is a native of southern West Virginia, but she didn't want to tell the story alone. She wanted the people who know the county the best - McDowell residents - to share their views on their home.

That has presented some challenges, but McMillion said it also has made the project more fulfilling.

First, she said she needed to earn the trust of local residents. They eventually welcomed her, but it took a little while.

"People are always skeptical about anything that's about West Virginia or Appalachia because it's so typically stereotypical," McMillion said.

With community members working on the film as well, she said the lines of filmmaker and film participant blurred a bit. That helped people feel more comfortable. She said she was "surprised at how much the people sort of adopted me."

McMillion said another challenge was weaving in the community videos.

Although she said she did not create a traditional story narrative that takes viewers from a beginning to an end, there was no way to work in every video from the community. The films that didn't make the final project are available on a different website, she said.

She can't wait for people to see the film.

"I think it's a project that many West Virginians are going to be proud of," McMillion said. "Being a West Virginian and growing up here, I think it's a really authentic view of the area."

The film's website,, is live today. But it's not the only spot to view a bit of "Hollow." McMillion created a short version for the New York Times "Op-Docs" portion of the website.

People all over the country are interested in seeing the project and learning more about the community, McMillion said.

"I'm not really sure the people in McDowell really realize how may people who have never been to McDowell and never been to West Virginia... are so excited for this," she said.

"I think that that's going to be super empowering for the residents, to see that people care, and that people want to see their stories."

The people of McDowell can see the film Saturday in Welch and Sunday in Caretta, at several different locations. The Internet connection in Welch isn't strong enough to run the film live, so the team is prerecording it for the public viewing, McMillion said.

The team is also distributing thumb drives containing the project to libraries or other community centers.

Apart from another documentary that focuses on a particular family in McDowell County, McMillion said she doesn't have any real plans after "Hollow."

While she's ready to work on some short-term projects after the two years of work on the film, she will always have a soft spot for this subject.

"I don't think I'll really be able to disconnect from the people of McDowell," she said.

The website is free. For the full interactive experience, McMillion advised it's best to view the film using the Google Chrome Internet browser.

For more information, go to

COURTESY PHOTO The team behind the documentary Hollow compiled hundreds of hours of footage over four years.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher Follow him at

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