In 2009, Davy Rothbart read a New York Times article about the Medora Hornets, a small-town high school basketball team in Indiana that had gone 0-22 the previous year. The players came from families living near the poverty line; some were said to play in work boots because their parents couldn't afford to buy them basketball shoes.
Rothbart is the editor of Found, a magazine that offers a peek into strangers' lives by publishing discarded letters, notes, lists, photographs and other items that its contributors discover out in the world. He has spent much of the last decade touring in a van and showing off the finds to crowds in cities across the country. So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Rothbart's instinct upon learning about the Medora Hornets was to move to the town (along with his friend and co-director, Andrew Cohn) and film a documentary about the team's next season.
"When you're out touring like we were with Found, you're constantly finding yourself on these remote stretches of road, and you see some kid playing in the front yard of a trailer park or something," Rothbart tells The Pitch. "And you start to have these daydreams about these kids' lives. What is their story?"
"Found is this thrilling way to get a glimpse of people's lives, but it's just the tip of an iceberg," Rothbart continues. "In Medora, we had the opportunity to spend eight months, a year, with these kids. It was like seeing the rest of the iceberg."
Medora feels like a descendant of a couple of Midwestern basketball films: Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams. Like the former, it's an Indiana underdog story. Like the latter, it uses basketball as a lens through which to examine some of the harsh realities of postindustrial America. But it's also shot through with a gritty beauty that feels very personal — the filmmakers clearly fell in love with Medora and its citizens.
The film premiered this year at South By Southwest, and on Saturday, Rothbart and Cohn bring the film to Screenland Armour for a screening. Joining them are two of the players featured in the documentary.
Despite the fact that Medora is getting a higher-profile release than the average documentary — thanks in part to the involvement of Olive Productions, a production company formed by Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi — Rothbart says it has been a relatively pleasant transition from his grassroots Found approach to the larger scale of Hollywood releases.
"People kept telling us we'd have to pay a fixer to get the movie in theaters or that we didn't have a chance of finding a wider audience because it's not a million-dollar documentary," he says. "But I've found that when we reached out to theaters individually, they responded really well. They loved the film and wanted to share it. So I think one of the lessons we've learned with this is that although the movie industry isn't necessarily built on a DIY aesthetic, you can bring it to the system and be successful with it."