Hardwood and hard times in a new documentary
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter December 3, 2013 5:24PM
High school basketball players in a struggling Indiana town are the subject of the documentary “Medora.” | © ‘MEDORA’
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Music Box Theatre,
3733 N. Southport
Tickets : $10
Updated: April 14, 2014 4:47PM
Medora is a small farming town lost in time in Southern Indiana.
The automotive plastics factory left. A long time ago John Mellencamp shot the “Hurts So Good” music video on the main street.
Basketball is all that is left in Medora (population 500).
It took former Chicagoan Davy Rothbart, creator and editor of Found magazine, to find Medora’s deep back story. Rothbart and Andrew Cohn directed and produced “Medora,” an evocative documentary about the Medora high school basketball team’s 2011 season after the Hornets had finished 2010 with an 0-22 record.
Rothbart and Cohn will screen the 82-minute movie and host a Q&A with one of the Hornets on Thursday at the Music Box Theatre. “Medora” also may be viewed online at vimeo.com/ondemand/medorafilm.
Found magazine collects notes and drawings discarded on the street. It’s “all about being curious about the lives of strangers, getting that random glimpse through that lost scrap of paper,” Rothbart said after a screening in Kansas City, Mo. “But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We spent so much time in Medora; it’s like taking a found note and meeting the person who wrote it and spending a year with them.”
“Hoosiers,” another Indiana high school hoops movie, was about the glow of happy endings. “Medora” is about the promise of beginnings.
A holdout against the consolidation of schools, Medora had a 2011 enrollment of 72 students — 33 boys. Parents are absent and in rehab. Other families live in trailers outside a main drag of boarded-up buildings. The team’s coaches are volunteers: a policeman, a preacher and a stonecutter.
Rothbart learned about the plight of the team in a November 2009 article in the New York Times.
“I was in Ann Arbor, Mich. [his hometown], drove there the next day with Andrew and saw a practice,” Rothbart said. “It reminded us of small towns 20 minutes outside of Ann Arbor. It took a year to get permission to shoot. The [newspaper] article was an honest look at the challenges the town was facing, but a lot of people in town thought it focused on the negative. Of course, people hold on to their memories of the glory days. They were leery of us.”
There suddenly was a buzz on the forsaken Hornets.
“Apparently we’re not the only filmmakers who read the New York Times,” Rothbart cracked. “They were besieged. The school took meetings with us, ESPN, other directors. They said no to everybody. Two weeks before the season started they said it was OK to come in. We basically moved in the area. We spent eight months in Seymour [Mellencamp’s hometown] because that was the nearest place with a motel.”
Why did the village officials and school board say yes to Rothbart and Cohn? “They understood we were Midwesterners,” said Rothbart, 38. “We’re not Hollywood a--holes. I think they heard some of my ‘This American Life’ work. At the time the superintendent was a little more cosmopolitan, and I think he understood the tone of respectfulness to which we wanted to approach the story.”
Actor Steve Buscemi is the film’s executive producer. “We had a screening in New York City a couple weeks ago,” Rothbart said. “He was there and he was really nervous. [Hornet players] Dylan McSoley and Rusty Rogers were there. He was starstruck, which was cool.”
Rothbart and Cohn were fortunate to witness compelling turning points. We won’t spoil anything.
“The beauty of documentary is that it is not scripted,” Rothbart said. “And it’s not reality TV, where you are managing things. If you’re there all the time, you’re almost guaranteed to get moments you never could have predicted.
“One of my favorite lines is from [player] Dylan McSoley, after what a hard life he has had. But he’s such an upbeat kid and he talks about all the girls he dates whose names start with the letter K. No one could dream that up.”
Once shooting began, the cameras became a fadeaway jumper.
“You see these raw, personal moments,” said Rothbart, a former Bulls ticket scalper. “Some kids said they don’t even remember us being there. The first week they all jumped in front of the camera and after that we were just background. We told them we wanted to film everything we see. They had to trust us to be sensitive about what we wanted to include.”
Rothbart is excited to return to Chicago for the screening. “I used to go to the Music Box all the time,” he said. “As someone who aspired to make films, it’s special to come back to where I lived for so long and share this film at the same theater I used to see movies.”