‘The Ultimate Underdogs’
An interview with the directors of the Medora documentary.
by Duane Watson / @byDuaneWatson
Basketball thrives in the Hoosier State. As the birthplace of Larry Bird, the tradition of the Indiana Hoosiers, or the Milan High School basketball team that inspired the movie Hoosiers—the state of Indiana and basketball are inextricably tied.
But in Medora, a small rural town of 500 in southern Indiana, the outlook is bleak, not only for the Medora Hornets varsity basketball team who sports an 0-22 record, but for the community itself. The town’s economy has eroded, factories have closed and the school faces consolidation. Yet despite the adversity both the team and townspeople face, they continue to fight for a small victory as chronicled in the documentary Medora. The film is an enthralling basketball odyssey, as much as it’s an honest depiction of the struggles of Smalltown, USA—one inspiring the other.
Medora co-directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart spoke with SLAM about their documentary feature debut that was four years in the making.
SLAM: How did this film come about?
Davy Rothbart: We read this article in the New York Times by John Branch and it was about a town called Medora. The small town’s factory shut down and things got pretty dire, and this high school basketball team that never wins. We drove down the next day, it’s a few hours from Ann Arbor and we met with some of the coaches, the players and we watched them practice. We kind of wandered around town and just looked at each and other and were like, “This is a movie we were born to make.”
We’re passionate basketball junkies, we actually met on a basketball court in our hometown. We love documentary films, we had made some shorter films and also we related to the story because you don’t have to go far out of Ann Arbor to find towns like Medora. We were no strangers to the grim realities some of these small towns were facing. We also saw it as a great basketball story, it took a year to convince the town to let us bring cameras and start filming the team, but then they gave us permission two weeks before the following season started. We scrambled, got together some equipment, some friends, spent seven months and started following the team over the course of a season.
SLAM: How important was it to have a balance in the film between the Medora Hornets and the town of Medora itself?
Andrew Cohn: Actually, originally it was really going to be more of a sports documentary. We really thought, “What would a documentary be about a team that never wins?” Once we got to the town and met with the kids, we realized there were some powerful and interesting stories, stuff that we could relate to. The town thing kind of manifested itself as the story went on. There’s the old black and white footage in the film, that’s actually all footage from the town of Medora, and that basketball footage is old Medora basketball games. An old player we interviewed gave me that DVD and was like, “Here’s some old footage of the town.” So for me, when I got that I was like, now I have a visual way to tell the story of the town. I always thought the story of the town was interesting, but I wasn’t quite sure how I would tell the story visually and how it fit in. Davy and I always wanted the team to be sort of a metaphor for the town, struggling and unable to compete, so once I really saw that beautiful old footage, that’s when the story of the town started to emerge a little bit more.
SLAM: In films focusing on inner-city kids, basketball is an escape or refuge for their lives off the court, but it seems like the same adage applies in Medora as well?
Rothbart: Definitely, these kids have faced some difficult home lives, or absent parents and some of these small rural towns where jobs faded away, kids get into trouble. So having basketball as a refuge, pouring their energy and free time into basketball is a really positive thing, as opposed to other trouble they can be getting into. Also, the coaches, they’re not your cliché hero coaches, they’re flawed, they’re learning the job, and they’re pretty young themselves. The head coach is in his mid-20s, his assistant coaches, they’re not saints, but they care and they’re there every day—the only consistent male presence in most of these kid’s lives.
SLAM: As documentarians, was it difficult to disconnect yourself from the subjects with all the losing and personal issues they endured?
Rothbart: Absolutely, we love these kids, we still do, we got really close to them. We were in their homes every day, hanging out, playing basketball with them, sitting in their bedrooms while they talked about things that were closest to their heart, and really opened themselves up to us in a deep and intimate, raw revealing way. They wanted to win pretty badly, the townspeople wanted them to win, but we wanted them to win more than anybody. There were times when I had tears in my eyes ’cause I’m watching the end of this close game and I would forget to film! I’m so intensely cheering for this team and I would have tears in my eyes if they lost another close one or got blown out again.
Cohn: When I talk to people about filmmaking, you don’t give that kind of access and you don’t get that kind of connecting with someone emotionally unless you’re really there and put in the time. I tell documentary filmmakers you can’t just show up and expect people to open up their lives to you. People are pretty willing to talk about their lives, but there has to be a sense of trust. A lot of times Davy and I would hang out with them without the cameras on, we would play basketball and hang out and just get to know the kids. The greatest thing about a project like this is we’re there for eight months, it really gave us the time to figure out the story and get to know the kids. I’m still really close with the kids, that genuine connection is something you cant fake, we’re in a way friends and I think that comes through in the film, at least I hope.
SLAM: What do you think that Medora Hornets win symbolized for the town?
Rothbart: To me, it symbolizes no matter how much you beat down a town or its people, they still have pride and they can fight for their survival. You see the kids they’re happy, they’re not freaking out or carrying anyone off the court. They understand it’s just one win, they didn’t win a championship and they’re understated about it. But in the weeks that followed there was a great sense of relief, pride and resilience. These kids are the ultimate underdogs, they’re playing schools that are way bigger than them, they’re not your typical athletes, and many of them are kids form troubled homes. But they’ve worked together to overcome against all odds and they’re rightfully proud and the town takes pride too and makes the town feel like we’re fighting these same overwhelming odds and maybe we can survive one way or another.
Cohn: I think the movie is about the small victories in life. These kids, none of them are going to the NBA, this isn’t a movie about kids that are going to go off to college with a scholarship. My favorite line in the movie is the cheerleading coach who says, “You don’t have to do great things to be a great person.” It really resonated with me and I found myself watching the movie at a festival and hearing that line again after the movie coming out and really thinking about what he said; just the fact that everybody has value. Yeah they didn’t win the state championship, but it was a big deal to them and it meant a lot to them. I think audiences do feel like they won the state championship when they won. These small victories in life should be celebrated. The people in these towns, they don’t want a lot, they don’t want handouts, they just want to be able to raise a family. So for me it’s: Everybody has value and the small victories that people can take away and have pride, even if it is one game, or breaking a losing streak.
SLAM: How has the response to the film been?
Rothbart: It’s been awesome; it’s been really intense. Audiences seem to absolutely love it in a way that we hoped for. It’s really a powerful thing to sit in a theatre at some of these festivals and look around and see people with tears streaming down their face, or cheering when they win. You just see that they’ve fallen in love with these kids the same way that we have. People even cheer during the epilogues and afterward you talk to people and they act like it’s transformed them. We got a really incredible response at Woodstock Film Festival a few weeks ago. One of our favorite documentaries is When We Were Kings, so Leon Gast is the director of the film and I didn’t quite put together who he was at first. I was like, “Wow this guy really likes the movie!” He was like, “That was the best sports movie I have seen since Hoop Dreams.” That’s a huge compliment coming from someone like him, even to be mentioned, even to be in the conversation. I grew up watching movies like Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Murderball and to me, something that people would talk about in that kind of light is humbling and meaningful.