Hustle and heart
NPR’s Davy Rothbart brought his street game to small town America while making the new documentary ‘Medora,’ showing tonight at Crawford Family Forum
By Carl Kozlowski 04/23/2014
Davy Rothbart spent part of the 1990s hustling Chicago Bulls basketball tickets on the streets of the Windy City at the height of the Michael Jordan era.
Nearly 20 years later, that passion for basketball has paid off for Rothbart, who today is an author and a star on National Public Radio, but only in an entirely different way than one might think.
Since his days as a ticket scalper, the multitalented Rothbart has enjoyed a thriving career with countless appearances on NPR’s popular show “This American Life,” the publication of several short-story and essay collections, and the explosive growth of his annually published Found magazines. His latest venture is co-directing the new feature-length documentary “Medora,” about a small town with a losing high school basketball team that’s been devastated by the Great Recession.
Rothbart will be presenting “Medora,” and hosting a question and answer session afterward, tonight at the Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena.
The film follows a year in the life of the small Indiana town of Medora, which has been rocked so hard by harsh economic times that it lost 1,500 of its 2,000 residents since its local factory shut down. Its high school basketball team hasn’t won a game in years, but the film shows the amazing effort that the team puts forth to finally stop losing and boost the town’s morale.
“I read an article in The New York Times by the great writer John Branch, a short piece that still showed their fighting spirit,” recalls Rothbart. “Many documentaries are about teams trying to win championships, but this was just about the desire to win even once. My co-director Andrew Cohn and I went down from our homes in Ann Arbor, Mich., and we checked out the town and met the coach and players.
“We fell in love with the town and wanted to tell about small town America and how rural communities are being battered,” Rothbart continues. “We came back a year later with friends and cameras and embedded ourselves for a year in a nearby town. It’s a really raw and personal documentary about four kids trying to find their place in the world and dealing with challenges at home and school.”
Rothbart believes that a common thread weaves its way throughout all of his work: an innate curiosity about ordinary people and their private lives.
That curiosity inspired him to hold onto countless notes that he’d find during his nationwide travels, scraps of paper with both hilarious and despondent tones that seemed to reveal everything about the psyches of strangers. Eventually he decided his collection was so fascinating that he compiled them into a magazine, Found.
“You feel you’re in that person’s mind and heart, and they’re revealing themselves in a way they never expected,” explains Rothbart. “The note that sparked it was on my windshield but addressed to some guy named Mario, saying ‘Mario, I hate you! You said you had to work and your car is here at her place! I hate you I hate you! Page me later!’ It’s full of hope and love and desperation all at once.”
At first, Rothbart published his own personal collection of notes that he thought would be popular solely among his friends as a zine, or a blog with an extremely limited audience. He intended to print just 50 copies, give them away at a party and see how well they caught on with strangers there.
“But the Kinko’s guy printing them said ‘This is awesome. Make 800,’ and at a party a week later we sold 100 copies for five bucks each, leaving us 700 copies lying in boxes in my apartment,” Rothbart recalls. “I left on a trip for a couple weeks, came back and they were gone. He said they sold out, because so many people spread the word and were coming to buy two, three or four copies, and cops were coming by thinking we were selling drugs. Now it’s an annual edition with thousands of copies, and each day, 25 to 30 people send us weird notes they’ve found.”
With a play based on his “Found” experiences heading to the New York City stage in the next year, and numerous other documentary and fiction-film projects in the works, Rothbart has his hands full. But he’s never too busy to reach out and help people whose lives have touched him.
“I was nervous how the people in the movie would react because it was so intimate and I wondered if they were too exposed?” Rothbart says of “Medora.”
“We showed them the film for the first time in the town library. They were laughing, and there were some tears, but the overall reaction was understated. Then one giant farm kid named Robby jumped up and said ‘I loved it!’ and the rest followed suit. They said it was honest, true and fair and really celebrates them as people with very little, living in desperate circumstances, who find a way to move on. The Washington Post called it one of the top movies of 2013, which was pretty wonderful company next to ‘12 Years a Slave.’”
Davy Rothbart screens “Medora” and discusses it at length afterwards in an evening program starting at 7 p.m. tonight at the Crawford Family Forum, 474 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Admission is free. RSVP at kpcc.org.