The closing scene in the 82-minute documentary “Medora” had barely finished when John Werner turned to the person next to him and gave his eight-word review:
“They got it right,” Werner said. “They got it right.”
Werner, a 1957 graduate of the since-consolidated Wanatah High School in LaPorte County, didn’t have an extensive background of “Medora” prior to seeing the Indiana premiere of the film on the Indiana University campus last week. But like many natives of small Midwestern communities, Werner can understand the struggle for survival portrayed in “Medora,” which is centered on a downtrodden high school basketball team in Medora, Ind. (population: 700).
Co-directors Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn, both natives of Michigan who were inspired to learn more about Medora after reading a 2009 New York Times article on the community and basketball team, spent eight months during the 2010-11 school year entrenched there, living out of a hotel in nearby Seymour. Rothbart and Cohn shot more than 600 hours of video, going behind the scenes with a team that finished 0-22 the previous season and had a first-year coach who doubled as a police officer in Bedford.
Unlike another Indiana high school basketball movie, the 1986 “Hoosiers,” Medora isn’t an underdog chasing a state championship. It is simply trying to win a single game. In an amusing opening scene, frustrated coach Justin Gilbert is shown in the locker room after another blowout loss, alternately looking at the scorebook in his hand and the team in front of him.
“Are you kidding me?” Gilbert says. “You had no points. Zero. Zero points in the fourth quarter. Zero. None. In eight minutes. Eight minutes. Eight minutes. Zero. Are you kidding me?”
Near the end of the movie, Medora finally does win a game (which, Cohn said, the audience has applauded at every showing so far). But the beauty of “Medora” isn’t necessarily the on-court scenes, as much as the work Rothbart and Cohn put into telling the often troubled family backgrounds of the players, as well as the journey of Medora as a self-sustained, bustling community in the 1950s and ’60s to the present day, where there is little hope or opportunity (or as one resident described Medora in the movie: “Closed.”)
In one powerful scene, the directors incorporate a speech from Barack Obama about the changing nation and economy, illustrating the speech with the backdrop of shuttered windows, vacant storefronts and closed factories in Medora.
“There are thousands of communities like Medora around the country,” Rothbart said. “We wanted to kind of tell the story of the town through the basketball team. They kind of mirror each other. Like coach Gilbert says at one point: ‘How can we even compete?’ As a team and a community in a changing economic time that Obama alludes to. But what you find are people who have grit and even as things are sliding away from them, find a way to survive.”
Though several of the players are featured throughout the film, two in particular become central characters: Dylan McSoley and Rusty Rogers. The fun-loving McSoley has aspirations to be a preacher and delivers some of the film’s funniest lines. But he’s also struggling to decide if he should attempt to establish a relationship with a father he is aware of but has never met.
Early in the movie, Rogers is shown living with a teammate because his mother is in rehab as a recovering alcoholic. As he drives to his former home in the middle of the country, Rogers shares a story of a stepfather hitting him and his mother with a baseball bat during a drunken rage.
“We always wanted to keep it focused on the kids,” Cohn said. “The coaches had great stories, too, but we thought the kids’ stories were what would drive the film.”
As sad as they were, these stories allow the audience to form a connection with the Medora team. Rothbart and Cohn knew they’d only get the good stuff — such as an impromptu ride through Medora via a fire truck after the first win — if they were totally immersed in the community.
“It was almost like we became part of the community,” Rothbart said. “After a while, the team didn’t even notice us.”
That’s not entirely true, Rogers said.
“At first we were all wanting to be on film and stuff,” he said. “But by the end of it we were like, ‘OK, go away. You don’t need to be filming me while I’m eating Dairy Queen.’ “
Rogers admitted he didn’t have any idea what kind of movie Rothbart and Cohn would ultimately make once they left town.
“It’s a good (representation) of what Medora is,” he said. “There are some hard times and good times, but everybody still makes it and stays strong.”
Cohn said the directors were adamant that they didn’t want to make a political statement with the film, despite the seemingly day-to-day existence of the school and community. It is a story about survival, as resident Ron Craig says in the movie: “The town will die when the school leaves.”
Said Cohn: “I didn’t want it to be an issue documentary. We wanted to show what kids were going through in a town like Medora. We wanted put a personal face on it. We wanted it to be an intimate portrait of the town and kids. We started with the whole team and slowly started to peel back the layers of what they were going through off the court.”
“Medora” may not change a thing for Medora. The town will still face the same, difficult economic realities, as will the school. Medora is a small town with real problems. But there are many communities just like it, dealing with the same issues, all over the country.
“To let these towns disappear without acknowledging their contributions would be a mistake,” Rothbart said.