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Grant boosts McDowell documentary project

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Elaine McMillion sounded bone-tired, but for all the best reasons.

The self-described "documentary storyteller" had just left McDowell County last week after shooting almost daily there since mid-May for her interactive documentary, "Hollow." She and her crew also put cameras in the hands of more than a dozen residents, showing them how to capture their own view of the places and lives they lived.

"I've been insanely busy. I think I filled up around eight hard drives. It was really fun," the 24-year-old filmmaker said by cellphone from Beckley.

She was headed for a short visit with family in Charleston. Then, it was on to Boston, where she was going to miss the first day of classes at Emerson College, where she's working on a master's degree in visual and media arts.

All that hard-drive space is in service to an innovative documentary project that now moves to postproduction in Boston and elsewhere, boosted by a high-profile national grant. "Hollow" recently won a large grant from the Tribeca Film Institute's New Media Fund, founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and the Ford Foundation, among six projects across America that received between $50,000 and $100,000.

"I didn't think we had shot at all because I'm a nobody in the world of film," said McMillion, whose self-effacement shouldn't lead you to discount two previous award-winning documentaries.

But the grant does place her and her team in notable company. One of last year's winners of the New Media Fund grant was celebrated documentary filmmaker Steve James, director of "Hoop Dreams" (1994) and "The Interrupters" (2011).

"Even more than it being a personal honor, I was so full of pride and happy that they chose a project about West Virginia. This is exciting that people want to see another side of the state, a more uplifting side of the state than what you typically see," said McMillion.

The grant is a significant injection of cash for a project whose successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year brought in $28,000. The Kickstarter money was used to get the ambitious project off the ground, as well as onto the ground in Southern West Virginia.

The New Media Fund grant is also a vote of confidence for a West Virginia-centric project that uses the latest digital tools to boost the hopes of a place usually consigned to despair and hopelessness in most media accounts.

"Hollow" will certainly have to tackle the nitty-gritty devastation in a county "hollowed" out by remoteness and decades of coal extraction, which seemed to leave nothing in return except shuttered storefronts, impoverishment and a plummeting population.

The project's title was inspired by a 2009 book by sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas titled "Hollowing Out the Middle" (Beacon Press). Its premise is that the flight from depressed rural communities fundamentally harms the economic health of a nation whose fortunes are tied to its heartland.

But McMillion hunkered down in Welch and other communities specifically to document the forward-looking hopes of the old and young who call the place home.

"The people I have met this summer are among the most amazing people I've ever met. I really think of them as friends and family. They took care of me, fed me," she said.

In return, she asked them to share their ideas and visions of a better future or to take up a camera in their own hands. A bunch of residents produced footage to be edited into "video portraits" on the project website, hollowthefilm.com.

The shooting will continue on now that the documentarians have departed, as 15 "community filmmakers" who learned how to shoot now teach others, passing around the five cameras left behind.

"We definitely created citizen journalists -- you could call them that. I was particularly excited to get some young people interested in it," McMillion said.

The "Hollow" site will also feature photography, soundscapes, aerial cartography and user-friendly data from a website powered by the more multimedia, interactive and graphic-friendly HTML5 technology. For instance, McMillion worked this summer with young people at a McDowell 4-H camp, asking them to visualize a new community center. Her team will take all the drawings and animate them for the website. "They became architects of a sort to draw their future community center, what they'd like to see come to McDowell County," she said.

It's one of many tasks ahead before the project is formally unveiled sometime in May. "So, there's a lot of postproduction beyond video editing that needs to be done," she said.

McMillion, a 2005 graduate of South Charleston High School, co-founded the WVU journalism school's "WV Uncovered" project, which features short video documentaries told from rural areas. "Hollow" takes such an effort to the next level, combining the latest in digital communication with classic storytelling on behalf of collective change in McDowell County.

"I really hope this project can help improve those communities," she said. "I think there's a lot of hope there and a lot of change that could happen. It's just a matter of getting people together to make it happen."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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