'Medora': A found documentary 

The 2010 Medora team in a production photo by 'Medora' cinematographer Peter Leix.
  • The 2010 Medora team in a production photo by 'Medora' cinematographer Peter Leix.

The Medora High School basketball team first arrived in the national consciousness in 2009, when a New York Times story chronicled the team's woeful record (0-22) and the town of Medora's economic depression. Other filmmakers and writers soon descended on the town, pitching ideas for documentaries and other followup coverage.

But the school board, burned by what they felt was the article's one-sided portrayal of the town, was reticent to allow access to players. Only Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn - two of the main forces behind Found magazine - were able to break through, gaining permission to film shortly before the 2010 season. Their chronicle of that year, Medora, is nearing the end of the production process; a Kickstarter grant launched Monday is asking for $18,000 to pay for final production and equipment costs, including an editor's salary.

Last week, Rothbart and Cohn called into NUVO from opposite sides of the county - Rothbart in Los Angeles, Cohn in New York City - to talk about the film. They plan to complete Medora in time to screen at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

NUVO: How did you end up gaining the trust of the people of Medora and the school board where other groups and filmmakers failed?

Davy Rothbart: A lot of it was just going to Medora with Andrew, letting them meet us in person. We're not outsiders, exactly: We grew up in small towns in Michigan; Andrew's uncle runs a bar in a small Indiana town that's the size of Medora or smaller. We shared some of our work from the past, some of the This American Life pieces that I've done that show a sensitive perspective.

Andrew Cohn: I think we were also empathetic to the fact that they felt burned from the article. We understood that while everything in the article may have been true, it didn't give both sides of the story, or talk about the good things about living in a small town.

NUVO: How much access did you have? Were you in school with the players?

Rothbart: We basically moved to the town for six or seven months. We stayed in Seymour, 20 minutes away. It started out with just filming the games and practices, but the townspeople were so generous with us, so open, and were really welcoming about letting us into their homes. The players didn't always communicate with their families that well; they'd be like, 'Yeah, come on over,' and then siblings or grandparents would say, 'Wait, what's happening here.'

NUVO: And I guess that's part of your style - you guys are pretty easygoing, which makes it easier to gain someone's trust.

Rothbart: We'd play hoops with them, we'd hang out with them. There were times when we'd film for a couple hours, put the cameras down, and then hang out for another hour, have dinner with their families. It became where we were just part of the community, really.

Cohn: We also took that into the storytelling, too, wouldn't you say, Davy? We connected with these kids on such a genuine level that when we watched these games, we really wanted them to win, and that's something that we wanted to communicate in the film.

Rothbart: During these close games - they had a lot of tight games, and hadn't won a game in a couple years - I would have tears in my eyes. I was trying to film, but it was so intense because we knew how much it meant to them. A lot of them were dealing with rough things in their lives, with so many challenges, that you saw how much a victory would mean to them.

NUVO: The players are the focus of the story, but you also end up spending a lot of time on the coaches, who are impressive for the amount of time and energy they've invested in the team and players.

Cohn: We showed up expecting to shoot a sports documentary about coaches turning the program around and the quest for on-court victory. But it turned into something totally different. It became the story of the town, instead of the team, with the team as a metaphor for what the town was going through in the country, really struggling with issues that have been compounding for years: school consolidation, manufacturing losses, farm consolidation. At the beginning we wanted it to be a sports movie; but in a lot of ways, during the editing processes and even while we were there, we realized that we wanted to avoid a lot of stereotypical sports documentary elements. While it is about these coaches and the impact they're having on these kids, that's not only what it's about.

NUVO: What do you make of the quote by ['Medora' executive producer] Stanley Tucci that tops your Kickstarter page: "It shows how America has cannibalized itself."

Rothbart: These towns did create the fabric of our country, and it does seem like they're being hung out to dry, and the casualties are these teenage kids now who don't really remember the time when things were brighter; this is what they know. There's very little opportunity for them in their towns - and the towns are disappearing. What do they do? Where do they turn?

Cohn: That's what the point of the film is: To have people think about what these small towns mean to the country. Is there something lost when these towns disappear? We're not pretending we have the answer, we don't think; we just want people to think about it.

NUVO: Can you talk about a player who, say, had the most to overcome during the year or had the greatest successes?

Rothbart: Rusty Rogers is the center on the team, probably the best player or tied for the best; big guy, but a good ballhandler. He had had a pretty challenging home situation, bouncing from place to place without anywhere to call home, staying with various relatives and staying on his own for quite awhile. When the season started he had just moved in with the point guard, Zach Fish, and Zach's mom. He had actually been out of school for a couple of years, but the idea of going to school for a couple of years with a couple of his best friends kind of attracted him back.

Cohn: You should tell him the story about how he ended up going to Medora.

Rothbart: Yeah, it's a pretty funny story. Coach Gilbert, who's also a police officer in Bedford, was doing a routine call at some house where there was a disturbance or something. He's talking to a few people there, and then he sees Rusty just lounging on a chair in the back. He's like, 'Who are you? What school do you go to?' Rusty's like, 'Oh, I'm not really in school.' And he starts into it: 'Do you play ball,' because Rusty's maybe 6'6". He's there on a police call, but he just starts recruiting him.

He realized Rusty was the kid who he heard about through a couple other players, so he invited him to come down and practice, and he ended up joining the team. Rusty, to my mind, is the wonderful success story of the film. Well, a lot of the kids overcome a lot; but with Rusty, here's this kid who was basically semi-homeless at 14 or 15, working full-time at Hardee's, bouncing around on sofas - and by the end of the film, he's joined Medora, really found a home for himself there, his mom dealt with some of her demons and was doing much better, he moved back in with her, and just kind of found a place for himself.

Production photo by Leix of the town of Medora.
  • Production photo by Leix of the town of Medora.

NUVO: Why'd you decide to go the Kickstarter route?

Rothbart: On a very basic level, it'd allow us to pay our editor while we finish putting the movie together, but it's also a way for people to become involved with the creation of the film. If someone's gives $25 or $50 now, in a way they own a piece of the movie, and then we'll update them, share new footage. I've donated to probably a dozen projects by friends, and I like getting email updates, getting a sense of how these projects come to life, how much work goes into them; the inside perspective throughout the life of a project.

Cohn: It also allows us to maintain an independent dynamic that we wanted to hold on to. Yeah, we had some interest from outside companies and outlets, but this gives us the freedom to make the movie that we want to make, and not to be held hostage by some outside company that may give us the money to finish the film, but may have their own opinions about how the movie should look.

NUVO: How did Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci end up coming on as producers?

Rothbart: Our producer Rachel Dengiz works at Olive Productions in New York City, which is Steve and Stanley's production company, with their partner Wren Arthur. Rachel shared some of the footage we'd shot with all of them, and I think it really spoke to them. It's wonderful to have their support and to know that they believe so strongly in the film.

NUVO: You guys have a lot of projects going at once. How do you prioritize?

Cohn: Well, we've made some sacrifices. Davy's slowed down his work with Found.

Rothbart: Yeah, there hasn't been a Found issue in two and a half years, because I was in Medora hanging out in Rusty's kitchen. But I think all these projects are similar. I had this revelation one day when we were shooting down in Medora. When I'd drive down the highways on these Found tours, I'd always see kids playing in some farm field, beside a tiny clapboard house, and I'd always think, I wish I could just pull over, hang out with those kids and see what their story is. One of the players, Roy Edwards, a big star of the team, lives right by I-65. And one day, Rusty and Roy were playing football in the snow there, and I was watching these trucks and cars going by right beyond them, and I was like - this is crazy; here I am in the yard that I've always passed by, and now I'm getting a chance to really get to know these people in a deep and powerful way. I've been telling people: The time I spent in Medora was one of the most profound and meaningful experience of my life. Getting to know these kids, families and coaches really meant a lot to me. Yeah, I'm sad that means I've missed a couple of issues of Found along the way, I feel like this movie is a deeper look into people's lives.

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