reality check

The little team that could

The new documentary Medora tells the story of a struggling Indiana town through its high school basketball team
November 4, 2013

Medora, Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn’s moving new documentary, is much more than a year in the life of a floundering sports team–it’s also a portrait of a once-prosperous, now shrinking small town where many live close to the poverty line.

Over the course of one season, the boys on the Medora Hornets high school basketball team try to shift a decades-long losing streak, while grappling with challenges of their own.

Rusty Rogers, the team’s center, dropped out of school and got a job after his mother’s drinking made it impossible for her to care for him. Back in school and living with friends while she is in rehab, he is still afraid she will relapse.

Dylan McSoley, guard, has never met his father and dreams of being a preacher. “God is your Father, and I know that he won’t leave. And that he’ll always be there for me,” he says.

And Robby Armstrong, power forward, wants to be the first member of his family to go to college but struggles with a learning disability.

The Hornets also bear the burden of being one of the few bright spots left in a town that is, as one resident flatly puts it, “closed.” People used to work at either the plastics plant or the brick factory–now Medora has neither, and the high school is battling consolidation.

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The boys and their families are remarkably candid about their hopes and fears, and Rothbart and Cohn’s sensitive handling of their stories makes Medora a powerful testament to one little town’s determination to survive.

Warmly received at its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March, the film will open in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on November 8, and will also be available on VOD and iTunes from November 12.

CJR spoke to co-directors Rothbart and Cohn about their work on Medora.

Why a small town in Indiana? Why Medora?
Davy Rothbart: We read this article in The New York Times a few years ago by a guy named John Branch about the town of Medora and its team that never wins. And the challenges that Medora was facing as a town were very familiar to us, because Andrew and I are from Michigan…Ann Arbor is a college town, but you don’t have to drive that far outside Ann Arbor to find towns like Medora. We’re basketball nuts, we’re documentary film junkies, and it just seemed like the story we were born to tell.

Was it the idea of ‘the one team that never won’ that got your attention?
DR: Yeah, I think so. Because most sports documentaries are about a team trying to win a championship, or something, and here was a team just trying to win a single game. And so it felt like every game would have that intense drama and emotion of a championship game, because this could be the one game they could win.

Andrew Cohn: When we got to the town…it just seemed like a really magical place. My first instinct, I remember talking to Davy, was ‘How does this place exist?’ There’s a bank, a bar, a school, a mill, and liquor store, and yet people still live in this town. The trend has been people leaving to go to these larger towns. And so Davy and I wanted to explore what keeps these people here: the identity, the sense of camaraderie.

How did you choose the particular boys on the team to follow?
DR: Every kid on the team had a pretty fascinating story. There were some that didn’t even make it into the movie but were equally fascinating. We just spent time with everyone on the team. For a few of the kids, it had to do with access. These were kids who were very open with us–some more than others, and some more immediately than others–but they allowed us into their homes and their families were very open.

My background is in storytelling, and seeing kids go through this powerful year and come through transformed, in one way or another, was fascinating to us.

AC: We were there for a long time. I like the panoramic view that you get of the town. Where we do follow four main characters, but I like that you get to meet the cheerleading coach, who you could just make a movie about that guy.

We wanted people to feel the experience of living in a town like that, and we made an actual concerted effort. In the movie you never leave the town of Medora, and everything is told by the townspeople. We actually had interviews with professors, talking about school consolidation. We had a bunch of other interviews of people going a little bit wider, talking about these things. But at the end of the day, Davy and I just felt like, ‘Let’s just tell this story from the people that live there.’ I’m proud that we were able to communicate these people’s experience of living in a town like Medora. Because not many people live in a town of 500.

DR: We came to love Medora. Some of the kids there talk about how people in other towns will talk badly about Medora and what happens there. But even in the midst of this pretty economically depressed area, you see a community that really cares about its school and its kids and its identity, that really rallies around each other. If one person falls down, the rest of the town reaches out and tries to help them back up.

There’s great value in communities like Medora, and it’s a heartbreaking thing to see them continue to fade off the map. And Medora is really just a microcosm of what’s happening nationwide, because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Medoras all across the country.

There’s a moving sequence, late in the film, where one of the families is listening to a presidential address that mentions small-town hardships, and you intercut it with signs that Medora is struggling.
DR: That is a really nice sequence because it speaks to just how universal an issue this is.

AC: Exactly. And we didn’t plan on using that…But then, once you’d heard the speech, it was so eerie, because it was like he [President Obama] was talking to the town. You know, when he’s talking about the loss of manufacturing.

DR: To me, one of the political elements of the film that I’m happiest that we managed to include is [when] Logan Farmer [the Hornets’ power forward]’s mom talked about how she works in a factory and just how poor they are. I think there’s a misconception, or a misperception by a lot of Americans that if people are struggling, if they’re on welfare, it’s because they’re lazy, they don’t want to work. In Medora there’s no jobs. And if you’re lucky enough to be one of the few that has a job, what you’re paid is not really enough to feed a family or keep a roof over your head.

How long did you spend in Medora?
DR: We were there for like eight months, and that was the bulk of the shoot. And then we continued to go back for another year or more that followed. So all told, we shot for about two years. But what was really incredible was how willing people were to be open and to share personal and raw, emotional details of their lives with us.

I still think that when you approach people with genuine kindness, curiosity, and compassion, people are very eager to share their stories. They’re glad that somebody cares about what they think and what they’re experiencing in life. It’s not true of everybody. Some people took longer than others to arrive at that level of comfort. But for some kids and their families, they were incredibly open. I considered it all inconceivably generous how welcoming and how open they were.

It did seem that at some point they must have forgotten there were cameras there.
DR: I know. I think that’s true. I think that within two weeks, they forgot that the cameras were there and they just were hanging out with us. They knew we were there, but they had a level of comfort with us. And the cameras kind of disappear; they become invisible. They become so used to them.

AC: We consciously wanted to do [a] really light production. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles of a huge production company. We didn’t have sound guys.

I love the fact that the interviews feel as if you’re just in their house, just talking and that they don’t feel overproduced. I thought that was a really smart decision by [our director of photography, Rachael Counce] to make it feel real, and not too glossy. For a film like this, I think it really worked.

What’s it like to film a basketball game? Are you tripping over people’s feet?
AC: We had a big, five-camera shoot. We had Davy, who would be on the floor, which is why there are all of those great shots of Davy in the movie. He would usually be on Coach Gilbert and we’d have him miked. And Rachel would be on the baseline, with the dolly. We’d have someone shooting a wide shot just of the game, which is that top shot you usually see in NBA games or college games, that gives you sort of a bird’s-eye view. And then we had two other people roaming around shooting cheerleaders, crowd reactions, things like that. That was the biggest challenge for me in the editing room, was cutting those sequences together because you have these five cameras going [and] it’s a lot to go through.

DR: We had 600 hours of footage at the end of it, which we had to turn into an 80-minute film. It was a huge amount of stuff. But for me what was the most intense was trying to film while watching the games, because we’d be so emotional, we wanted them to win. We were so connected to these kids, we cared about them so much at this point, as we’d gotten to know them more and more–you can’t help but fall in love with them.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu