CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's what documentary filmmakers do when they're blown away by something. They get going on a documentary.
That was certainly the urge after Elaine McMillion encountered the barren storefronts of Welch, in McDowell County, which could be a poster child for the worst of depressed and devastated Third World Appalachia.
"I went to Welch last summer," said McMillion, who did some growing up in Logan and Elkview and now lives in Boston. "It's just unbelievable. I never knew there were ghost towns like that in West Virginia. You always hear about that out West. It infuriated me and made me mad. And made me really sad."
Then, she met some of the people who live in a county whose name when Googled will yield story after story of bottom-of-the-barrel economic malaise, relentless drug abuse and general wall-to-wall hopelessness.
But some of the people weren't hopeless, said McMillion, who sees herself as a "documentary storyteller."
"The people there that day opened my eyes to their stories. I was so moved by that experience I really felt like there was something there that needed to be expressed -- not coming from me, but coming from them."
The documentary project that resulted was dubbed "Hollow." The name was inspired by a 2009 book by sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas titled "Hollowing Out the Middle" (Beacon Press). The book's premise is that the brain drain and flight from rural American communities fundamentally harms the economic health and future of a nation whose fortunes are tied to its heartland.
But "Hollow," now in development by McMillion and a crew of multidisciplinary cohorts ranging from a "digital cartographer" to a "creative technologist," is intended to be far more than yet another plaintive, heartbreaking, gritty documentary.
The project -- now in the midst of a $25,000 kickstarter campaign that ends May 13 -- is intended to engage the people of McDowell County in charting their own, better future.
Described on the project website, hollowthefilm.com, as a project "for the community, by the community," "Hollow" will combine "personal documentary video portraits, user-generated content, photography, soundscapes and interactive data on an HTML5 website" in order to tackle stereotypes associated with the area, the roots of its population loss and potential for the future.
Area residents will take part in the whole process by contributing 20 of 50 short documentaries. The cameras they use will remain in the area for further documentation of changes afoot. The project team will hold three workshops in the community from May to August that focus on telling stories through photography, video, aerial mapping and audio.
McMillion, a 2005 graduate of South Charleston High School, was co-founder of the WVU School of Journalism's "WV Uncovered" project," which focuses on telling tales from rural areas and training reporters at small newspapers in multimedia storytelling.
She received the "Director's Choice" and "Audience Choice" awards at the 2011 West Virginia Filmmakers Festival for her documentary, "Lincoln County Massacre," an unconventional tale of State Police brutality from 1980 told from the point of view of a biker gang.
"The Lower 9," the second feature she co-directed and co-produced, recounts the story of four diverse residents trying to regain a sense of home after Hurricane Katrina crippled their Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood in August 2005. The film recently won the Golden Circle Award in Los Angeles and was picked up for distribution by Third World Newsreel.
McMillion is big on media types re-thinking and re-evaluating the way they serve out their film, video and journalism to the world. By allowing people to interact, shape and involve themselves personally with the narrative of a given project, they will have a greater stake in what arises out of the coverage, she said.
Images and narratives are powerful forces, and McDowell County's story, shaped by incessant bad news and damning media, becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, McMillion said.
"If you tell someone so many times that their community is dangerous and everyone's on drugs and no one has a job, they not only become hardened to the outside world, but they also feel a little less of a feeling of hope."
That's not to say her project won't delve into the nitty-gritty of what ails a long-suffering region, she said. "McDowell County never catches a break -- never."
Yet by making the community, in a sense, part and parcel of the project, its residents can help shape a truer perspective of life on the ground and the needed changes to come.
"I really believe that if we give them a chance to identify who they are to themselves and to the outside world that something can happen," McMillion said.
So, instead of a film crew dropping in to document a hopeless situation and then departing, her interactive project aims to encourage local residents to start evaluating and then repairing "a social fabric that has been torn."
"There's no better way to start addressing very serious issues than to get the community to start talking about them. And that's the step we're taking."
The project also parlays new technology in the service of old values. West Virginia native Eric Lovell, a cartographer now living in Oregon, will use a technique called "balloon mapping" -- a kind of aerial cartography that puts a camera in a balloon -- to map images of the county. Through workshops and uploads of historic and contemporary photos, area residents will fill in the blanks of a visual map on the website of McDowell's past, present and future.
"People living there now will have a perspective on what used to be there, what's there now and what they hope will be there five years from now," McMillion said.
She hopes the "Hollow" project can turn into a useful model for encouraging the necessary dialogue for transforming other depressed communities around the state and nation.
Born in Abingdon, Va., but steeped in the Mountain State while growing up here, McMillion also has some skin in the game when it comes to West Virginia, a place she considers home.
"West Virginia is a place I want to come back to," she said. "You think of home staying the way that you left it. When you come back and see things have changed -- and not for the better -- I can't sit back and not do anything."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.