“Zero!” the coach yells out with a tone of profound indignation. “Zero points in the fourth quarter! Zero! None! In eight minutes! Eight minutes! Eight minutes! Zero!”
Thus begins “Medora,” a documentary about an Indiana high school basketball team’s struggle to overcome an epic losing streak. Produced in association with Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci’s Olive Productions, the film was inspired by a 2009 article in the New York Times that details the attempts of the southern Indiana town of Medora to keep hope alive in spite of their team’s previous 0-22 season. Directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart embedded themselves in the town for several months and acquired hundreds of hours of footage that they edited down to 82 minutes of sheer drama that plays like a narrative feature.
At one point, after a player gets kicked off the team, one of the filmmakers follows him as he lingers about town and eventually comes to rest on a playground swing and muses: “Getting on the ball team and getting kicked off, that’s had to be the most devastating thing that’s happened to me. It’s like the world just like stops. It’s like life stops. It’s my fault is what it is. I don’t know, I just wanted, I wanted to at least win one game. Hopes and dreams, they can let you down.”
Heartbreaking observations like these are interspersed with shots of a once thriving town decaying amidst the bleak yet picturesque farm country of Indiana. Townspeople come forth to attest to the glorious past, and old black and white super-8 footage backs their stories up with glimpses of dominant basketball teams that were easy to rally behind.
At another point, a player leads one of the filmmakers along a dusty road toward a trailer park and says: “This is the first house I really remember livin’ in. This don’t even look like it should be back here, it just looks like it was a corn field and then people decided to put trailers back here. My mom and dad used to be together when they lived here and they fought a lot here.”
Broken homes, substance abuse and poverty haunt the community of Medora, and for the players who come into focus in this film, such realities serve as ever-present reminders of the fate of those who give in to failure. However, the deck is stacked against this town and it has been for some time. The factories that used to provide jobs to sustain the life of the community have closed, the population has dwindled, and their school is constantly under threat of consolidation, a process that neighboring schools have already undergone to create the lopsided odds the Medora Hornets face every time they take the court.
A graphic in the film demonstrates the problem. Several area schools are shown consolidating into one, growing their population to 738 students and 362 boys, but Medora remains with only 72 students and 33 boys. Medora has to reach down into the ranks of their younger students, who would ordinarily be playing junior varsity, to help field their varsity team, while the consolidated schools select from the very best of their upperclassmen.
The reasons behind Medora’s resistance to consolidate are summed up in a line spoken by one of the townspeople: “I go through all these small towns every day. In the past you could go through there when people lived there and the school was there, and you know they was clean little towns. The people there was happy. But you don’t see that now. You just don’t see it.”
So Medora rallies behind their basketball team with renewed hope each game in the possibility that the young men who represent them can taste victory for a brief moment in time. These are the new Hoosiers. Unlike the town of Milan 65 miles to their east, whose team won a series of victories against larger schools to secure the state title in 1954 and later inspire a hit film, these Hoosiers seek only one single victory, almost as though to write their own elegy to the past and to justify their fight to remain a community in the tradition of small-town America.
Aside from exposing the detrimental effects that globalization can have on individual lives, Cohn and Rothbart’s film raises interesting questions about the purpose of organized sports in an educational setting. It is certainly important for a school to be capable of fielding a varsity team with players that fall within the proper age range. But when these smaller schools consolidate, many students forfeit opportunities for participation in what invariably becomes a more competitive athletic environment. In the absence of consolidation, the number of boys and girls playing ball in rural Indiana would be greater, and more students would be getting exercise and experiencing the value of competition and teamwork in the region’s most popular extracurricular activity.
This is not to say that athletics should be the primary focus where consolidation is concerned, and for Medora the issue cuts much deeper than levels of participation in sports. Rather, it is about individual identity in relation to community.
As one resident puts it: “When you look at a small community, and the value of a small community, the fact of everyone having that niche and a place to belong, and if they’re not in that place, guess what, they’re missed.”
It is in this context of defending their own turf that the Medora Hornets take the court, and the stakes could not be higher as they allow the weight of the town to rest on their shoulders with a singular desire for redemption amidst collective misfortune, and what they show us with their effort is that sometimes it takes loss to reveal the true meaning of victory.
A special screening of “Medora” will take place at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, Dec 12, 2013, at 7 p.m. Filmmakers and subjects will be in attendance.