We were drawn this week to the work of Elaine McMillion Sheldon, whose interactive documentary film “Hollow” explores the future of rural America. While creating her documentary, McMillion Sheldon interviewed dozens of residents of McDowell County, West Virginia — an area that has lost more than three-quarters of its population over the past 65 years due to a lack of opportunities.
The stories McMillion Sheldon features in her documentary highlight people who are trying to rebuild the area and provide new opportunities for future generations living there. ‘Hollow,” which has been gaining widespread attention, marries traditional shoe-leather reporting with innovative online storytelling.
It’s a good example of a Restorative Narrative — media that looks at how a community is showing resilience and trying to rebuild in the midst of difficult times. Resilience has been a cornerstone of McMillion Sheldon’s work; not long ago, she helped create a “Disaster Resilience Journal” — a 42-day journal that looks at how people are responding to natural disasters around the world.
Kino-Eye.com — a site that features news about documentary film, video art, and new media, recently interviewed McMillion Sheldon about “Hollow” and the story behind it. In the interview, McMillion Sheldon explains how she got to know the people of McDowell County:
“The process of making ‘Hollow’ what it is today was a huge team effort between me as a storyteller and my designer and architect Jeff Soyk who crafted and choreographed pieces with my footage and with my photographs and sound to help make this a unique experience rather than one that’s similar to other websites out there where media has distorted, and we wanted to make it more cinematic. So in the process of building trust, when I first went down to McDowell, that was in 2011. I spent quite a bit of time, almost close to half a year building trust from afar and making small trips down, just trying to get to know people, and not pulling out my camera the first thing, but just getting to know them, getting to know what they care about, and sort of what roles they serve in the community. And so in May of 2012 it was still that trust building, but I went down there until September 2012 to shoot.”
She went on to explain how she built trust among community members:
“I created a community advisory board of five individuals in the county that I had made pretty good contacts with. They each represented a portion of the community, whether it was history, or art, or youth. Every time I interviewed someone, they would give me a list of five or ten people that I could then interview again or interview new people. I made over 200 calls to have people sit down with me and chat and just talk with me, and only about 75 actually wanted to talk with me. It wasn’t like the whole community embraced it, we had a really strong core community, but still there was a lot of suspicion around any type of media project in that county because they make the headlines every month. There was a three-part series in Al Jazeera in which McDowell County was the feature of the worst place on the planet for drug abuse, drug overdose, and poverty. The New York Times published an article where they compared life in McDowell County to the lifespan in Iraq. They are used as this poster child for all things negative. So they’re pretty distrustful to anyone with a camera. And so the community advisory board helped and I was there just constantly. It was just a matter of just being there, never leaving, and showing up at every possible event, even when you’re not invited, and just being present.
The full interview is well worth the read.