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Film about dying Indiana town shows what Bel Air could have been, town officials say

Film FestivalsBasketballArtSouth by SouthwestMaryland Film Festival

In the town of Medora, Ind., a tiny high school struggles to hold together a basketball team, buildings stand boarded up and one shop owner, when asked to describe the town, called it "closed."

"This is almost what Bel Air was teetering on, in a way," Trish Heidenreich, Bel Air's economic development director, said.

Heidenreich was talking about the new documentary "Medora," which capped Bel Air's fifth annual film festival this weekend.

The movie, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, gives a glimpse of the downtrodden town through the tribulations of the Medora Hornets basketball team, which has not won a game in years.

After seeing the film, Heidenreich said enthusiastically: "We wanted to, like, go to Medora and clean it up."

Directed by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, the movie tries to show the challenges for hundreds of towns like Medora, once thriving, but now facing a very uncertain future.

And, as one school administrator says in the movie: "These small towns, I think, is what this country is based on."

Until its revitalization in recent years, the small town of Bel Air seemed headed in the same direction, said Carol Deibel, who oversaw planning and zoning in Bel Air for 26 years until retiring three years ago.

After Sunday's screening in the Armory, Deibel recalled how she was originally told, "You can never bring Main Street back."

But now downtown Bel Air is filled with restaurants, stores and events that bring hundreds or even thousands to town regularly.

"I think when you go down Main Street today, you can see the difference that can be made when everybody works together," Deibel said.

She mentioned the high school basketball coach in "Medora," who never loses faith in his players despite their standing as the worst team in the region.

"That is the only way you can make a difference, is to get everybody working together," Deibel said. "I really believe that the small town is really worth keeping and it gives us a sense of community."

Deibel said the small town where she grew up in Baltimore County is now a large, "amorphous" development.

"I look at Bel Air – and Bel Air is a lot older, actually – [and] Bel Air is still a town," she said.

In the 1980s, the town was down to one restaurant, and needed more competition, not less, she said.

"Now look at the restaurants we have in Bel Air and it makes all the difference in the world," she said.

The film festival, which continues to grow, is itself an example of Bel Air's continued vibrancy.

Heidenreich and Rebecca Jessop, special events director for the county's Center for the Arts, said Friday night's opening of "Secretariat's Jockey, Ron Turcotte" drew about 100 people.

Meanwhile, Saturday night's screening of "In God We Trust," about major Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, drew about 80 people and a very spirited discussion with Charles Wolpoff, Kelly Group financial planner.

Only a couple of people came out for the "Medora" screening Sunday afternoon, but they seemed pleased by what the festival meant for Bel Air.

One man suggested to Deibel and Heidenreich that Main Street could be turned into a pedestrian-only mall to increase foot traffic.

Deibel said that was considered several times, but the main challenge is that most town roads are owned by the state.

Another attendee, Chris Sweeney, of Abingdon, said he had meant to come to the festival for several years.

"I think stuff like this is really important. I think it's great," he said, adding he also goes to the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore. "It makes me feel good that Bel Air has these opportunities."

Jessop said the festival has grown over time.

"People look forward to it and even if they don't come, they really like the idea of it being here," she said. "We are really proud to be able to add something special to the arts and entertainment district."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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