It is made clear to us from the start that Hollow is about home. McDowell County, WV is among the poorest in the country, with a declining coal industry and a paltry population of under 30,000. Hollow is a testament, however, to McDowell (and places like it) and it’s resiliency in identity, community, and preservation.
Early on we are presented with two stories of different types of people living in the county. The first is Alan Johnston, a retired musician and amateur photographer. Alan has devoted most of his retirement to photographing the area, explaining that there are things from his childhood that he “wished had been preserved.” In his video in Hollow he visits an old school, seeing hand prints from former students painted on the wall. He openly wonders about the young kids and where they are now. This sense of space and time shows that there are so many stories to be told, and now, years later, the only that remains of them in this space is a hand print. It digs somewhat at the diverse stories from within Appalachia that often get overlooked, and that Johnston is trying to preserve.
The other is a group of people who are not looking back, like Johnston, but rather ahead. Shawn Penwarden is not from McDowell Country originally, like Johnston is. Penwarden and his wife moved to West Virginia from North Carolina, and have a very “positive-forward” approach to the future of their adopted home. The Penwarden family see the future of the county as being in tourism and hospitality, and are trying to make McDowell a model for the rest of the country. They are, at the time of the documentary, working of a barbecue restaurant called “Half-Pint Cafe,” that they hope will be a reason that tourists will go out of their way to the county to visit. It is a progressive outlook, and represents a hopefully bright future for the people of McDowell county. It also represents the hope of more stories to come from the place that so many people call home.
The unfortunate truth of places like McDowell is that there is not much hope financially. My own family has it’s roots in a place just like McDowell which has not recovered as much as it has stabilized. But people like Alan Johnston and the Penwarden’s represent the identity and story of the place. They are doing work to preserve the identity of their home in different ways- by seeing how it was, and making how it is to be. Both are equally important and must work in tandem with each other in order for a place to continue to exist in the modern world.
(All photos taken from Hollow- An Interactive Documentary)