Coal Tattoo

Hollow: A different sort of coalfield film

A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Coal brought a large population to the McDowell County in the 1940’s. Now the population is shrinking and the county suffers from unemployment and poverty. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

My buddy Doug Imbrogno did a Gazette feature today about filmmaker Elaine McMillion and her project, “Hollow,” an interactive documentary that aims to give residents of McDowell County a chance to tell their own stories — an opportunity to talk about the county’s proud past, its somewhat troubled present, and its as-yet-undefined future. Here’s a little of what Doug wrote:

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.”

Doug’s story was tied, in part, to the ongoing fundraising campaign for the project, being done through kickstarter:

… “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.

As I mentioned a while back in a Friday roundup, here’s how Elaine and other project team members described what they’re trying to do:

The project leaders of Hollow believe that the voices of West Virginia have not been heard. Over the years, media has portrayed the people of Appalachia as one-dimensional characters in issue-driven films about coal mining and drug abuse. Films about our homestate have not given residents a chance to speak but have instead used them to fit their categories of “hillbilly,” “poor Appalachian,” “ignorant coal miners,” or “environmentalist.” This community participatory project has great potential to become a place where the community can have a voice and share ideas for the future. We hope that this interactive model can encourage trust among the community and empower them to work together for change. Hollow’s documentary portraits and user-generated content will provide a multidimensional viewpoint, highlighting the ingenuity and spirit that keeps the community fighting.

Over the last week or so, I’ve exchanged some emails with Elaine. And I did a phone interview with her yesterday. I thought Coal Tattoo readers might want to know more about the project and, in particular, learn what role coal’s impacts on McDowell County might play in the project. And I’m always interested in media coverage of the region, and despite my roots as a print journalist, Coal Tattoo has certainly taught me a lot about how much newspapers have to learn about the “the new media landscape,” for lack of a better term.

Like so many West Virginians, Elaine comes from a coal-mining family. She told me her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brother, cousins, uncles and even her mother have worked for the coal industry. Her father, Randy McMillion, previously worked for Pittston and RAG American Coal and is currently executive vice president and “Running Right” officer for Alpha Natural Resources. Elaine told me in an email interview:

Growing up in a mining community taught me how to be resourceful, independent, trustworthy and brave. My perspective on mining is that it has provided me with a roof over my head and food on the table growing up. Unless you grew up in a mining family you will not be able to accept this and appreciate the long history and culture of coal.

Elaine explained that her project is different from other types of journalism in some important ways:

Hollow is HUMAN-focused not ISSUE-focused project. This means that the issues that are important to residents (infrastructure, jobs, environment, clean water, education–whatever they may be) will come through. We are not going into the community and asking people “What do you think about mountain top removal?” We are going there to ask “What is important to you as a resident and what do you want to see change?” Decent working conditions, protection of environment and unemployment will all be addressed from a resident point-of-view if those are issues that they feel effect their daily lives and future.

And she said that, given the project’s citizen- and user-driven format, her own views on some of the less positive aspects of coal weren’t really relevant to the project:

What I believe about mine safety or the environment is not important for this project. The only way my perspective will come through is my understanding and alliance with people who also grew up in mining towns. This is not a pro-coal or anti-coal look at West Virginia; in fact it is a rare opportunity to see the community as it is, without divisions and labels.

Elaine — like most of us West Virginians — is quick to get upset about the stereotyping of our state and its residents. And she has a little different take about some of the recent “issue-focused” films about West Virginia, which have focused on exposing some of the coal industry’s worst abuses:

I am a promoter of using media for a good cause and promoting an idea but sometimes I feel that the films that focus on MTR polarize the West Virginia community. It seems that we as filmmakers can’t just create media without choosing sides. And while I respect “The Last Mountain” and have worked with the producers and admire them, I feel the film could have painted a little bit of a fairer picture. But their target audience was not West Virginia, it was the nation and world and they succeeded in gaining support from viewers. Also, most of the production crew lived in Boston and LA…an outsider point-of-view. Some may argue that that’s what we need…an outsider to come in and tell us what we can do to improve our future…but I believe the people of West Virginia have the brains to figure it out if we could only look beyond these labels.

 A scene that stuck out to me was during a protest. I believe it was in Kanawha City … We see the activists fighting for what they believe in and then we see the typical portrayal of a ignorant coal miner heckling the environmentalist. I know being from a family of miners that not all of them would act this way. But this makes for a dramatic scene and opposing two sides, which is a narrative device. There are very intelligent people working in the industry. There are also people working in the industry because it is the only opportunity for them if they want to stay in their area. Bottom line is, I would like to see a fair representation of both sides.

On the one hand, that scene from “Last Mountain” pretty well described what happened at that particular event, and the smart, responsible people who work for the coal industry often do little to step in and quell the mob scenes that some public hearings and other events have turned into — not that they get much help from political leaders or the media.

But on the other hand, Elaine’s thoughts on that scene reminded me of part of what I wrote about the film in a print-edition review for the Gazette:

The film also suffers from providing little of what I’ll call “the other side,” for lack of a better term. Sure, they included a set-up scene where Bobby Kennedy debates mountaintop removal with West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney. In that format, though, against someone as skilled as Kennedy, the scene is almost unfair to Raney.

It might have been better if the film included a scene like the one in “Talking Dirt,” one of a series of new plays called “Higher Ground,” about Appalachian struggles. The play, as The New York Times explained a few weeks ago, “offers an empathetic twist on its otherwise gloomy view of strip mining” with a talk between two high school friends, Beth and Roger.

“While Beth, who has been offered a scholarship, opposes strip mining, Roger, a young miner, shows her that her privileged status gives her the luxury to choose,” the Times said. “‘There wasn’t anybody standing there offering me a scholarship when I graduated high school,’ he tells her.”

In a telephone interview yesterday morning, Elaine elaborated:

You can’t separate the long history and tradition, the struggles. But I personally, I don’t feel that the media images are wrong, as much as they’re just half-truths. They’re not full pictures of things, and that’s what bothers me. Stereotypes are based on facts sometimes, and sometimes people live their lives through stereotypes and I think West Virginians, we play into stereotypes. I think that we sort of hate it, but we embrace it to a sense and we play into it.

Not everybody in McDowell County is against coal. Not everybody in McDowell County even likes coal or has any relation to it. I interviewed a 16-year-old back in December and I asked him what the role of coal was in his life and he said that none of his family members were coal miners. They’ve always hung gutter and were brick masons and other things, so the narratives that come out of this area seem to only say that there are two sides – there’s the side that you’re for coal and there’s the side that you’re against coal, and there’s no in between. It just drives me crazy, because I know so many people. Most of the people working on this project have no family history related to coal, so they can’t identify with the images that come out of the state. They’re just not full truths.

Of course, no reasonable person would try to say that the struggles with the coal industry — fights for unionization and fair wages, for mine safety and for even basic environmental protection — aren’t critically intertwined with the history of West Virginia. And no real discussion of today’s West Virginia can really avoid making mention of the large-scale surface mining that is causing so much damage to the environment and raising continued concerns about public health. You can’t ignore a mine explosion that snuffs out 29 lives in an instant, or coal-dust that sickens and kills thousands more. You can’t ignore the fact that the world’s climate is changing, and that energy markets are also changing — making it extremely unlikely that places like McDowell County can truly expect the sort of economic rebound that some political leaders tell us could happen if only the EPA would get off our backs.

But it’s also true that all of these issues, to some extent, are being played out among an increasingly small number of people employed by the coal industry.  While a crowd of people might turn out to yell at each other at a public hearing on a mining permit — many, many more West Virginians are busy with their lives, with trying to build a future for themselves and their children in communities whose only ties to coal are in the past. While political leaders often play up the industry’s importance, its economic impact is far less than it once was. With that comes the hard truth that coal continues to have political power (and to draw media attention, from people like me) that far outweighs its economic role. There’s little question in my mind that most outsiders don’t really understand that.

Smarter people than me have observed that when you boil it down, coal has been both a blessing and a curse for West Virginia. I like to ask people about that conclusion, and see what they make of it.  During our email exchange, Elaine didn’t really respond when I asked her. But in our telephone discussion, I asked her again. Here’s her answer:

I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s a resource, and I think that it needs to be given it’s own spotlight. And can’t be properly addressed in this project the way that documentaries just about coal mining can. This is a community voice project.  People are not going to come to the website and learn nothing but the history, future and destruction of coal mining. Coal is a resource, and I don’t know what the community’s opinions of what they see it playing a role in their future or not, but I look forward to finding out.

So, finally, it’s also true that coal isn’t all there is to West Virginia — and part of dealing with coal’s  past, its troubled present and its uncertain future is recognizing that there are other things that West Virginia has been and that West Virginians can be. I don’t know if that was what Elaine was trying to say or not, but it will be interesting to see what the good people of McDowell County have to say — for themselves this time.