Assistant coach Rudie Crain with the Medora High School basketball team.
Medora, Indiana is a small south Indiana town going backwards. A once -thriving community of about 2,500 it now contains boarded-up businesses and a dwindling population of about 500. But something about the town’s struggle — as told through the trials of its tiny high school basketball team — drew Angelenos to the documentary “Medora” on April 24, during a Community Cinema screening at the Crawford Family Forum.
Why would anyone in Los Angeles care about a Midwest team that’s lost 44 games in a row? Because the story of Medora, and the student athletes who kept trying despite endless obstacles, is something people can relate to anywhere, said Davy Rothbart, the documentary film's co-director and producer.
Some of the athletes in this documentary aspire to be the first high-school graduates in their family. One has never met his father, even though he lives less than an hour away. Another lives in his car because of his mother’s alcoholism. And a third plays basketball in an unsuccessful attempt to keep himself out of serious trouble.
And like the film’s tenacious students, the town refuses to give up its tiny high school and consolidate into a larger district, even though its dwindling population is making it more and more difficult to keep the school funded. Losing the school, one townsperson says, would be the end of Medora.
“The challenges that a town like Medora are facing are challenges that are being faced by towns all over the country, even in Southern California,” said Rothbart, who divides his time between Los Angeles and his hometown in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“We’ve had some screenings in some inner-city high schools and colleges in Pittsburgh, Denver, Memphis, and the film resonated with the kids in those cities more powerfully than I would have guessed. In fact, one of our big supporters of the film has been Baron Davis, an NBA player from south central Los Angeles, who said the kids’ stories (in Medora) resonated so much with what he and his friends experienced growing up in inner city L.A. So you don’t have to be from a rural place to understand these kinds of issues in a teen-agers life.”
The audience at the Crawford Family Forum agreed, with most raising their hands when the moderator asked how many could relate to the issues in the film.
“Medora” ends on an upbeat note, with the Hornets finally breaking their losing streak and finishing the season with two wins. Rothbart said the team continues to improve, with four wins last year and six this season.
Most of the evening was spent watching the 82-minute movie, which is available online through Amazon instant video, but Rothbart did answer a few questions at the end.
On why “small town” and “rural” doesn’t necessarily mean conservative:
“There are very few African Americans in southern Indiana, and just with me and my co-producer Andrew Cohn being there, we doubled the Jewish population…, so it is a homogeneous population, but what I thought was surprising was how much support President Obama had in these communities….Even though you might think rural, white people, rednecks, conservative, that was not at all the case. We saw a lot of left-leaning people and a lot of Obama supporters….and it seems to me young people in these communities are very open and very welcoming when there was someone who was different, whether gay, black, anything. I think it was more class issues that you saw them struggling to deal with.”
On how the crew was able to film the documentary’s “raw, intimate, deeply personal moments?”
“First of all these kids, their families and the community were incredibly generous and open with us, and it speaks to their kindness and goodwill. When you approach people with genuine curiosity and compassion, people are willing to share their stories with you; in fact they’re eager to. No one had ever asked them about their opinions on the world or to tell their own stories. Nobody had cared enough before to dig in and ask what mattered to them, what were their hopes and dreams.
“We (the filmmakers) assigned ourselves to different kids and we spent every day following them around with a camera. For the first two weeks they were hyper aware of the camera, and quickly we became invisible to them. The kids will tell you there are moments in the movie they don’t remember the camera being there, they don’t remember us being there.
“Everyone in Medora knew what we were up to. There are 500 people in the town and we met them all. We were just there all the time, and being there all the time was a big part of it too. This wasn’t drive-by filmmaking. We moved to the town for a year, we were there at every practice, every game, playing basketball with them, having dinner with their families, and that kind of trust is earned by being consistent and being there.”
On how spending a year in Medora affected his life:
“It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, being in the town for a year. Any time you get a chance to spend time with people who maybe have a slightly different background than you, it broadens your perspective.
“I remember teaching creative writing in a prison while I was in college at the University of Michigan, and just getting to meet folks who were incarcerated changed my mind about who’s incarcerated and what they’re there for, and being in Medora really opened my eyes.
We went down there with the question, ‘What is the value of these small towns and what is lost when these towns fade off the map. And just getting to meet the people who live in these towns, to see their courage, their resilience, their resolve, their nobility….the way the community rallies around the kids who are at risk and need help the most….that stuff really affects you and you start to recognize the value of these towns. And for me, just getting to know people were so loving and welcoming, and trying so hard with so little resources, was really moving and affecting for me, and I loved it. I loved being there.
“Editing 600 hours of footage into 80 minutes over the two years that followed once we left….that was less fun and more of a challenge, but our time there was definitely meaningful and I encourage anybody with any documentary interests...it doesn’t have to be a year, but go spend two or three weeks in a different kind of place, and really talk to people. It changes you.”
By Jeanette Marantos