Arts and Culture

The real-life Hoosiers of Medora: Small-town life dribbles away

There's the zombie, post-apocalyptic kind of cannibalism (good), and then there's the kind that Stanley Tucci notices in Medora, a movie that's been called the year's most important sports documentary and, according to executive producer Tucci, "shows how America has cannibalized itself." Davy Rothbart's newest flick isn't just for basketball enthusiasts and the boys who, like my husband, come of age in our nation's heartland, watching Hoosiers, playing ball, wondering what life had in store. No, Medora is for anyone who thinks our country could do a little better by its constituents.

See also: Rediscovering the Great American Prairie: Previewing a documentary-spanning project

In Indiana, high school basketball reigns supreme. So what happens to a community when its beloved team can't win a single game? That was a question Rothbart and co-director Andrew Cohn became increasingly interested in after stumbling upon a New York Times story about the Medora Hornets written by John Branch.

Cohn's parents live in Indianapolis, so the duo promptly drove to Medora to meet the Hornets' coaches and the school's then-superintendent. But they weren't the first to arrive. "There were a lot of people pitching a movie to them at the time," recalls Cohn. "They said 'no' to everybody, even ESPN, which I thought was ballsy."

Over the next year, every time Cohn went to visit his mom, he'd stop in Medora for a game. Cohn's perseverance paid off; two weeks before the 2010 season started, he got a call: The documentary was approved. Cohn and Rothbart subletted their New York apartments and moved to Medora for six months, during which they shot over 600 hours of footage. "It was quite the production," Cohn recalls. "And it took a total of three years from when we started shooting to completion."

The documentary opens with nostalgic, black-and-white footage happily offered up by locals, showing how, once upon a time, Medora thrived with a strong middle class. The town's plastics and brick factories have since closed, its farms are extinct, and the population has dwindled to under 700. "Over the years, as the middle class has been squeezed, this has become a really impoverished town," Cohn says.

The story unfolds around four Medora boys who are fighting to end their high school team's losing streak while their town faces the threat of extinction. According to Cohn, the basketball team is a metaphor for the community at large. Medora's high school, for example, is the third-smallest public school in the state; the year the film was shot, twelve students matriculated. "That's one of the primary issues," Cohn says. "Medora plays schools that are twenty times its size." The high school basketball team can't keep up with larger schools, much as Medora itself struggles to compete in a global economy.

At the end of Medora, you'll walk away with an honest, haunting yet inspiring understanding of the lives of those living in a down-but-not-out town with nothing more than a gas station, a mill, a bar, a school, a bank and a post office. Actually, Medora has a little more than that: Despite all the town has been through, Cohn was struck by a strong sense of pride that may just be enough to give the basketball team -- and Medora itself -- a fighting chance.

The film premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in March; now Rothbart and Cohn will bring their award-winning documentary to Denver on Tuesday, November 12 for a one-night-only screening at 7 p.m. at Chez Artiste, 2800 South Colorado Boulevard.

Yes, it's a movie-heavy month, with the Denver Film Festival also under way. If you miss this screening of Medora, the documentary will be available on iTunes for download and will also air on PBS this winter. In the meantime, get all the latest news on Twitter.

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Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer, and author of the forthcoming Falcon Guide Hiking Wth Kids, Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families.
Contact: Jamie Siebrase