CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- McDowell County residents brought their stories to Charleston Wednesday evening, to highlight one coalfield community's struggles and successes in dealing with economic decline, population loss and a host of other challenges.
Participants in the interactive documentary "Hollow" appeared to close out a day-long forum aimed at encouraging more discussion and action toward diversifying West Virginia's economy in the wake of coal's continuing decline.
Filmmaker and West Virginia native Elaine McMillion showed a collection of the project's 30 short films.
Several residents joined her for a discussion with about 200 people who attended the forum, called "A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State," which was sponsored by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Community Development Hub.
Unlike much of the media coverage of McDowell County and similar rural communities facing challenges, "Hollow" lets the residents themselves tell the story of their homeplace. The result is a much broader and deeper profile of a community.
Forum organizer Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that "Hollow" fit in perfectly with the event, which partly aimed at trying to encourage allowing coalfield communities a greater say in their own future economic development.
One "Hollow" segment featured McDowell resident Alan Johnston, who has spent several years trying to document the area and its history through his photographs.
"I don't believe it will ever be like it was when I was a kid," Johnston says in the segment. "That doesn't make me love this place any less. It's my home. I love these mountains."
Another segment features Shawn Penwarden, a native who moved back to McDowell County and has spurred to work to improve the area by the birth of his baby daughter, Jessica.
McMillion explained that Penwarden was among the residents who shot film for the project. She said much of his work focused on scenes of abandoned houses or raw sewage flowing into streams -- the sorts of things he wants to help the county clean up -- but that the last clip he sent her was a scene of him playing with Jessica.
"That last piece he shot was this really light-hearted piece of his baby, and that really summed up why he shot the other pieces," McMillion said.
Two young residents who joined McMillion for the Charleston event said that one problem the county faced was a history of young people either being encouraged to leave or at least not being told that staying in McDowell was even an option for them.