Sports film captures dying small-town America

It started with an article in the New York Times and a five-hour road trip south.

It was clinched with a Kickstarter campaign that asked for $18,000 and ended up netting $65,000.

Filmmakers Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn weren’t sure what to make of an article they found in the Times four years ago about an Indiana town with 500 residents whose high school boys’ basketball team had gone 0-22 the previous season. But within a day, they made the five-hour trip from their home city of Ann Arbor, Mich. to see the people at the source of the story in Medora, Ind. During the visit, an idea was born.

“There were kids who I knew could carry the film,” Cohn said. “That’s the core of the movie.”

The project has become the documentary “Medora,” which is slated for a screening in Philadelphia on Nov. 12 at the International House with both directors in attendance.

The film offers not only a take on a David vs. Goliath basketball team, but a case study of one of the many small towns in America that’s struggling to survive. Audiences are given access to the personal lives of many of the players, such as Dylan, who faces his fears of making first-time contact with his estranged father, as well as Rusty, who moves into a trailer with a friend after his mother is forced into alcohol rehab and Robby, who strives to be the first in his family to finish high school.

Rothbart and Cohn had their own share of struggles in making the film, such as getting the rights to actually film it.

“A lot of [Medora residents] didn’t like the [New York Times] article,” Cohn said.  “But I just kept following up with them for a year – kept going to games and hanging out with coaches – and they eventually gave us permission. [And] when I told the team about the film … half the kids did not know what a documentary was. Robby, two months after filming, came up to me and said, ‘So who’s going to play me in the film?’”

But they were able to build genuine trust with the residents of Medora through their period of filming from 2010 to 2011.

“Every day we were moved by the people of Medora’s generosity in opening their lives to us so completely, and their inspiring courage, heart and resilience,” Cohn said.

The presence of the cameras didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the truthfulness of the story or how the boys played on the court.

“I don’t think it really affected us at all because we got used to it,” Rusty Rogers, the 6-foot-5-inch center for the basketball team, said.

“When the film crew was on the scene, I could see a little extra energy,” Dennis Pace, Medora’s former athletic director, said. “But they were so outmanned [by bigger schools], it [wasn’t] worth it. It didn’t really matter.”

As for the town’s response to the new attention surrounding it, the film seems to have fared better than the New York Times article.

“What I’m hearing is people love [the film] because it shows what the people are really about,” Pace said. “[The people] opened up their homes and hearts … and [Cohn] and [Rothbart] did a really great job.”

This sense of community and hope is reflected in the film, and it has brought attention to the idea of documentary filmmaking as motivation to help teams improve.

“I get emails twice a week saying ‘There’s a terrible hockey team somewhere that you should make a documentary about,’” Cohn said.  “I could spend the rest of my life making documentaries about teams that need to be helped out.”

However, the film may not be the answer to Medora’s woes.

“I can’t really say that it changed the town,” Rogers said. “Not everyone has seen it. It didn’t really have an effect on me, because I knew what everyone was going through already.”

Regardless, as reflected in its hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a film which is ripe for a larger discussion of where the future of America is headed, as well as a look inward to what is important in life.

“My favorite quote in the movie is, ‘You don’t have to do great things to be a person,’” Cohn said. “The movie is about doing small things.”

Nathan Landis Funk can be reached at nathan.landis.funk@temple.edu.

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