Game Film: Medora

The declining town of Medora inspires a documentary. Will it be the place’s last shot?

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It all started with The New York Times. In 2009, the paper of record sent a reporter to Medora, a tiny town 80 miles south of Indianapolis. He returned with a story that seemed like the anti-Hoosiers: a town blighted by “ramshackle trailer homes” and “checkerboard streets,” a high school whose basketball team hadn’t managed a winning season in decades and featured a roster on which 14 of the 19 players came from broken homes. 

While many Times readers loved the article, the people of Medora were less impressed. “It wasn’t great,” deadpans Dennis Pace, the athletic director at Medora High School. “There were some truths about what was said, but it didn’t show anything positive about the town.” So when three different film crews approached the school about making a documentary in the wake of the story, it decided to give the media a second chance.

The high school settled on Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, two filmmakers based on opposite coasts who spent their formative years in the Midwest. Cohn’s parents grew up in Elkhart and just outside Lafayette. “It was a movie we felt like we were born to make,” he says. The directors moved to nearby Seymour and spent six months with Medora’s team, showing up to games and practices, going home with the players afterward, and amassing more than 700 hours of film.

The basketball team wasn’t the only thing best described as scrappy. “We funded the whole project ourselves,” Cohn says, and that meant borrowing cameras from friends and lining up interns from IU. Indy’s own Magnet Films pitched in, too, giving Cohn and Rothbart a sweetheart deal on lighting equipment. 

Struggling: The Medora Hornets went 0-22 the year of the New York Times article, and like the town, haven't fared much better since.The directors are now paring down those hours of footage to 90 minutes, and earlier this year they set up a Kickstarter donation page with the goal of raising enough money to pay the editor they had hired. Like the Times article, it became an example of how powerful Medora’s story can be: The page quickly attracted more than 700 donors and $65,000. “A lot of people are from small towns, or their parents are from small towns,” Cohn says. “The country is moving forward, but what happens to those places?”

While it’s clear that Medora still sees itself as economically viable, no one’s quite sure about Cohn and Rothbart. “They’re really good guys, just down-to-earth,” Pace says. “They told us, ‘After the first few days, you won’t even know we’re here.’ And they were right.” But ask him if the documentary will repeat the Times’s theme, and Pace pauses. “I don’t have any idea,” he admits. “That’s the weird thing—they keep it pretty hush-hush.” 

Cohn, for his part, promises Medora will show the good and bad of the town. He and Rothbart expect to have it ready late this fall ahead of the winter festival circuit, and they’re working on a broader distribution plan. In fact, Cohn is willing to make a second promise about the documentary, a genre of movie that rarely finds its way to the big screen: “The people of Indiana will be able to see this film.”

 
Photo by Peter Leix 

Film trailer courtesy Medora documentary website

This article appeared in the October 2012 issue.

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