In November of 2009, New York Times reporter John Branch traveled to the tiny hamlet of Medora, Indiana (population: about 500 people), located about 80 miles south of Indianapolis. Medora is home to the nation’s largest covered bridge, but amidst the shuttered plastic factories and brick plants Branch could find few signs of the Rockwellian idyll of small-town rural life.
“There is little to cheer but for the high school basketball team,” Branch wrote, only to signal yet another death knell: The basketball team “does not win.” The previous season, the Hornets finished 0-22.
Branch, who last year won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Snow Fall,” his multi-media account of skiers killed in an avalanche, depicted a bleak and depleted town, with a high poverty rate and rampant drug use. Medora, he suggested, “could be this generation’s anti-Hoosiers,” a reference to the 1986 film about the real-life Milan High basketball team that won the state championship in the mid-1950s.
Branch’s article served as inspiration, and foil, for filmmakers Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart. After reading Branch’s story, they decided that Medora and its high school basketball team deserved a deeper examination. They moved to neighboring Seymour, embedded themselves with the team for six months during the 2010-11 season, and filmed the interaction between the players, their parents, and their coach.
After initial filming Cohn and Rothbart raised over $60,000 on Kickstarter to pay the costs of editing the film. Cohn spent the next year shaping 600 hours of footage into an intimate, moving documentary, with the misadventures of the basketball team serving as a metaphor for the crumbling, yet resilient small town. (The film’s executive producers include actors Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi.)
“Medora” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and it has been making the rounds of the festival circuit ever since. “Medora” will air on PBS in the spring of 2014 as part of the Independent Lens documentary series.
Cohn and Rothbart are longtime collaborators; they are Midwesterners by birth — they both grew up in Michigan — and basketball junkies for life. Rothbart is the editor and publisher of Found Magazine and the author of “My Heart Is an Idiot” and “The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas.” His stories have aired on “This American Life.” Cohn is a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker who is a senior editor of Found Magazine. He is creative director for 21 Balloon Productions.
SportsLetter interviewed Cohn and Rothbart while they were in Indiana to screen the film there. (Rothbart was only available to answer the first question.)