As editor of Found Magazine and a contributor to This American Life, Davy Rothbart has devoted himself to mining humor and pathos from the lives of strangers. When he learned about the Medora Hornets, a high school basketball team suffering through a nasty losing streak in a factory-gutted Heartland community, he knew he had tell their story. He spent the next year-and-a-half embedded in Medora, Indiana, chronicling the lives of these young basketball players at home and on the court. Rothbart will be at a screening of Medora at the SIE FilmCenter on Tuesday, April 15. In advance of his trip to Denver, Westword spoke with him about his newest feature documentary.
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Westword: Talk about what you're going to be screening in Denver.
Davy Rothbart: I made a film, a documentary, called Medora. It's the story of a small town in rural Indiana called Medora. Medora is one of these towns where things shut down and things are pretty dire. Some people say that Medora is a meth town. The film focuses on four boys or teenagers in the town, and they all play for the high school basketball team, the Medora Hornets. The basketball team hasn't won a game in years. They play against bigger, consolidated schools and Medora is a smaller school. You really get a look into these kids' lives, their home lives and then, of course, on the basketball court, where the team hasn't won for years. Most documentaries focus on a team that's trying to win a championship or something, and they're just trying to win one game. Every game has drama as if it was a championship game. It might be the one game that they play that they win. As you get to know these kids, you fall in love with them and you want so badly for something good to happen in their lives, whether it's winning a game or overcoming some of the personal things that their families are going through.
There was an article in the New York Times that inspired our film. We went down there. We came to town with a few friends and a few cameras, and we filmed for over a year and a half. When we first got there, one of the kids we met was Rusty Rogers, whose mom had some struggles with alcohol and some substance abuse problems. He was intentionally homeless, living out of his car, and one of the teammates' families let him stay with them. We met a kid named Dylan McSoley who had never met his dad. Over the course of the season he was trying to wrestle with what he might want to become and what he might want to do, but also whether he wanted to locate and track down his dad, which he was finally able to. Their relationship is eally fascinating. There is a kid named Chaz Cowles. He had been locked up on a gun charge, and was trying to stay out of trouble and stay on the team. You know, it's really raw as a film.
It's really exciting to be able to share it with people. It's going to be featured on PBS in the next few weeks. And we will be having a special screening, and I will get to be there in person and show the film and introduce it and kind of share some of the stories. I think for people who've seen the film, they're really eager to learn more about what it was like and all about Medora and the experience of making the film. There are stories I can share about the film itself. I've never been to the Denver Film Society, but I hear it's a great place.
What it was like to shoot this film and to get to know these kids? What was your process?
This was a pretty rural place. It was hill country in southern Indiana, near the Kentucky border. It might seem weird to roll in here and start filming. It's not the kind of town that you imagine is the friendliest to outsiders. But I'll say this: Two things happened. Andy and I, we're both from Michigan. We actually met on a basketball court in Ann Arbor where we were growing up. We are both basketball lovers, and we're both documentary film junkies, so this was an exciting thing to work on together. We're not some big Hollywood film crew, even though we're from Los Angeles. Andy's from a town that's smaller than Medora; Medora has 500 people. I think when we came in we weren't seen as total outsiders. We told people that we were Midwestern and small-town guys. We're from towns like Medora outside of Ann Arbor.
When you're genuinely curious and you care about people, it's amazing how eager people will be to share stories with you. A lot of times, people in a forgotten town like this, they don't get a voice. Nobody in the outside world really cares what happens to them or to their town. Then people like us, who care a lot and are very interested in their lives, show up. I think many people really warm up and find it really enjoyable to talk about what matters to them. People were open to us and ultimately we were just really grateful for their generosity and their welcoming spirit.
Andrew always makes a point, which is a good one. It's not like we were flying home to L.A. on the weekends -- you know, what's referred to as drive-by filmmaking, where you show up once or twice a month. We lived not in Medora, but in the next town over. So we were there in Indiana for months at a time, and we were very involved in the life of the community. And the people in town, we met every one of them and got to know just about every one of them. Embedding that deeply allowed us to make a really meaningful film.
Read on for more from Davy Rothbart.
I'm curious how you funded that kind of embedded journalism.
We were totally enthralled with this town and the story of these kids and their families and the team. It took about a year to get permission to film from the school board and the superintendent. Once we had permission, we were there the next week. We were really excited. We filmed the whole production out of our pockets. We raised the money. It was pretty cheap. It's one of the cool things about DIY filmmaking. We borrowed some very nice cameras, but we got a cheap motel and we were able to be there for a long time and it made a big difference.
Talk about some of the surprises you encountered when you were documenting that story.
I would say what was most surprising was how quickly people got used to the cameras. What we found is that the first couple weeks we were there and people had cameras following them around, they were acutely aware of it. Eventually, we just faded into the background. We were just always around. The cameras became invisible surprisingly quickly. When the kids watch the movie now, there are times when they say, "I don't even remember you filming at this moment. I don't even remember you guys being there. I didn't even know you were at this party or you were at this game or whatever."
I think that's common. I've heard it from other filmmakers. The guys who made Undefeated -- a documentary I love -- they've told me that they had the same experience while they were filming.
They are all teenagers. They got their own concerns and have their lives and they're just people hanging out with there friends. If there are just two unobtrusive guys hanging out on the sidelines, it just kind of becomes background.
It's amazing how people do open up for a camera or a recorder in ways they won't open up for their closet friends.
What was really powerful was when the kids saw the film, a lot of them had tears in their eyes. We were nervous for how they would feel. Would they feel too exposed, or what would they think of the film? They really loved it, and they told us they knew their own stories but what moved them so much was learning the stories of their friends. They've known each other their whole lives. They grew up in the same town, two blocks away from each other, but they don't always know what happens in each other's homes when other people aren't around. They don't always know each other's full stories, and they don't always open up in that way. It's really amazing how deeply people will open up to you. I think it goes back to what I was saying. People are happy that their stories matter somewhat. These kids obviously matter to a lot of people, and they come out looking great.
Talk about how this film fits within the rest of your work?
Personally, I've always had a great curiosity about other people's lives. Found Magazine, I've been making that for ten years now from letters that people found on the ground, found on the street, love letters, people's journal entries people find, and real notes written by real people. They send them in from all over the country and all around the world. It gives people this heartbreaking and often hilarious glimpse into another person's mind and heart and world. It kind of sparks your imagination and you wonder, "Who wrote this and what was going on in their life?" With Medora, it was like taking one found note and then spending ten months living in that person's town and going deep inside their life.
I've worked for a radio show called This American Life these last ten years, doing stories just once or twice a year. Those stories, you go spend a few days or a week or two hanging out with someone and hearing their stories. That was always really fascinating to me. But it was the same thing. Sometimes I wished I could stay longer and go deeper into a story. Having the chance to live in Medora and spend so much time with these kids was really exciting.
Talk about your experience growing up as a basketball player and how your own story ties into these kids' stories.
I grew up in Ann Arbor and loved basketball. When I graduated, I went to Community High School, an alternative high school in Ann Arbor. When I graduated and I was going to University of Michigan, I was acting coach at Community High. I've been involved as a player and a coach.
Ann Arbor's a really healthy college town. The yniversity has insulated it from a lot of the economic difficulties that Michigan as a state has endured, and the Midwest and the Rust Belt have endured. Even in a town like Medora, which is so different in many ways from Ann Arbor -- it's tiny, it's very isolated -- what was on the kids' minds was the same kind of stuff that was on my mind as a teenager: Which girl can they ask to the dance?
These kids are so resilient and if you look at their circumstances from the outside, you'd think they'd be really gloomy kids. Their home lives were sometimes pretty desperate or rough, but they were not like that at all. They were not self-pitying. They're just upbeat teenagers taking it as it comes and dealing with this stuff. It was a lot of fun to get to know them and to hang out with them.
I spent a lot of time with that kid Dylan McSoley that I was talking about. What was funny is that he would often forget -- like when he was going out on a first date -- he would forget to warn the girl about me and what we were doing. He'd pull up to her house, she'd get inside, he'd start driving and be talking to her, and she would be like, "Dude, there's a guy in the backseat of the car filming us." He was like, "Oh, yeah. Yeah. That's some documentary. I don't really know what it's all about." There were a lot of moments like that. The players and the families we were around all the time were used to the cameras, but not everybody that they knew. There would often be moments like that.
We became good friends more than anything. We really connected. They're awesome kids. They're awesome guys. It's been fun the last year. I don't think any of the kids had ever left Indiana. Most of them had never been outside a few counties in their area. For the last year, we started to screen the film -- really, just the last couple months. The kids had gone with us to New York, L.A. and San Francisco. After being so involved in their lives, it's been nice for us to share our friends with them in different cities and let them meet our families and to take them to cool places, including on top of the Empire State Building. When you come from a town of 500 people, being on top of the Empire State Building is mind-blowing. There's no building taller than two stories in Medora.
Read on for more from Davy Rothbart.
That's great that they've been able to come with you.
It's been awesome. We get to know them more as peers. A lot of them are out of high school now. Some of the kids are taking college classes. A lot of them just start their lives. One kid graduated on Friday. On Saturday he got boots and a shotgun. Monday, he was working at the factory just down the road. He was actually the lucky one to get one of those few remaining jobs in the area. He's such a great guy that people want to have him on board. It was just weird. I'm 38. Robby is another one of the kids. He's got a job and works at a furniture factory. He's married and has a kid. He's more grown-up than I am. He's like 21. So many of these kids are more grown-up than I am.
Join Rothbart for a free screening of Medora at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 15; a Q&A period will follow the film. For more information, go to denverfilm.org or call 720-381-0813.
Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris