Spellbound, on the American tradition of the National Spelling Bee, is one of the great documentaries. In a 2004 New Zealand exclusive, Lumière Associate Editor ALEXANDER BISLEY interviewed the film’s director Jeff Blitz.

JEFF BLITZ says deciding to make Spellbound was like falling in love. “You don’t really analyse why you feel so strongly, so suddenly, but you do. That’s how I felt about making my documentary on the National [Spelling] Bee. I just knew in my bones that the Bee was the perfect backdrop for a great, big American story. The kind of story I wanted to tell. One full of drama and laughter and pathos and intelligence.”

Interviewing Blitz one can’t help – like when watching this directorial debut – but respond to his passion and empathy. It’s rare that you go to the movies and everyone seems to be having a great time. Spellbound, possibly my best in show for 2004, is that movie.

Spellbound vividly tells the colourful tales of eight young contenders for the crown at the Bee’s 1999 final: an Olympian spelling smackdown in Washington D.C. There’s Angela, her Mexican father illegally immigrated to Texas years ago and still can’t speak English. Ashley, an African-American for whom spelling represents a chance to escape Washington’s ghettos. Neil, whose Indian grandfather has paid 1000 people back home to pray around the clock for his victory. April, whose father works in a bar uncannily like Moe’s in The Simpsons. Ted, who lives in a trailer and has never left the rural mid-West. Harry, a hyperactive argument against the mass prescription of Ritalin. Emily, a patrician, pony club girl. Nupur, another feisty Indian. This American tradition goes back to 1925 and has nine million entrants each year.

Surprisingly, Blitz, who also did the camera work and produced, isn’t a veteran of one of these blitzkriegs. “I was a decent speller as a kid but it was not a favourite subject of mine. We never had spelling bees in the schools that I attended. I didn’t see a bee until I happened onto the televised nationals on cable.”

It was love at first sight. “On one of those rare days when I was kicking back, not worrying about my first big project, I happened to catch the final few rounds of The National Bee airing on ESPN. This was in 1997. I had never seen a spelling bee, had never been in one, but I was rapt. I knew, in that instant, that this would make a phenomenal movie.”

Multilayered and with a lot of subtext, Spellbound evokes The Simpsons, that enduring touchstone of American popular culture. “Actually, hilariously, I mentioned to a Simpsons writer years ago that I was working on a spelling bee documentary and, lo and behold, within the year they aired an episode about a National Spelling Bee. Coincidence? Who knows?”

Blitz, 35, “a big Lord of the Rings geek,” spent months studying and handicapping the spellers at past bees to decide on who to follow. “I studied which kids had gone far in 1998 and were young enough to return... I imagined myself a real Vegas odds maker of the spelling bee... I needed great stories, stories that would resonate on their own and in the context of the event.”

His favourite scene?  “Angela’s regional spelling bee. Makes me want to tear up just thinking about her father’s pride on that day.” Was he rooting for a particular kid at the final? “We were just pleased that we would have several subjects go very far in the competition. No rooting beyond that.” And the kids’ reaction to the final film? “Wonderful, they all loved it.”

Blitz is keenly keeping in contact with his subjects. “We’re going to include little updates on the kids on the DVD release. A few surprises that I won’t spoil now but the most fun development is that one of the kids has gotten engaged. What will become of them? Hard to predict, of course, but there’s a strange fact about spelling bees which is that a weirdly high proportion go on to become doctors. So it’s likely that several of these kids will do the same. Whatever field they go into, they’re all amazing kids in their own right and are likely to do well, I hope.”

Some of the kids – such as Harry – deserve a film of their own. “I think all the kids have a richness to their stories that would warrant more time. But I think they’ve all had their fill of celebrity for the moment.”

Does he think the offbeat, rather antiquated world of the spelling bee becomes a richly evocative microcosm of a diverse, colourful America – and the unifying American dream – today? “I do, indeed.”

One mother labels the spelling bee “a form of child abuse.” Some people argue that they are pointless. Blitz doesn’t buy the argument. “[Spelling] can inspire deeper or wider reading; it can prompt the beginnings of more trenchant understandings of language, or history... The kind of drive that requires is nothing short of astonishing. And, I think, the kids who feel the rewards of having committed to something like that are better able to tackle the big and rough problems that life will throw their way.”

I point out to Blitz that the dominant version of America we see here is George W Bush’s. Spellbound shows a fairer, more inclusive, more compassionate America. How does it segue with W’s? “I think Bush is a fraud... I believe in “pragmatic progressivism” and I think that Spellbound supports that vision of America.”

Reality TV may be in a parlous state at the moment, but Spellbound shows there are possibilities. “I think there’s nothing inherent in reality TV that makes it worthless or humiliating entertainment. That’s just the way most of it has tended. But I think it’s a format in its infancy and when people tire of the simplistic and kind of silly premises that most shows utilise now, I’m hopeful that more complicated, character-based programs will emerge to fill the void.”

Spellbound is more funny, suspenseful, thrilling and, above all, poignant, than most movies made with multi-millions. It’s received unanimously enthusiastic reviews, from both very conservative and very progressive reviewers. It’s blitzed its way into the top six highest-grossing documentaries of all time.

A triumph of no-budget, independent, guerrilla film-making, its production is also a spellbinding story. Blitz and his producer/sound guy Sean Welch daringly financed the film by collectively acquiring fourteen credit cards over the internet. “This was the hardest part of making Spellbound... For almost the whole process, we financed the film in this way… For every Spellbound – a movie that will make back its credit card budget and then some- there are a hundred movies whose stories never get told. So, the bottom line for me is, it worked out very well for us. But it’s not a formula I would recommend for the faint of heart.”

With fine films including Spellbound, The Fog of War, Amandla!, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Travelling Birds following in the wake of the Bowling for Columbine juggernaut, many say that documentaries are currently enjoying a “renaissance.” As Blitz points out, it is more that distributors and exhibitors are now properly supporting documentaries.

“I think the success of documentaries recently has less to do with qualitative shifts in the making of docs or with audience appetites and more to do with the fact that distributors are willing to spend real marketing money now to let audiences know how terrific these films are.” 

The likes of Peter Biskind lament the state of independent cinema, but Blitz proves that there is still hope. “I’m optimistic that talented filmmakers often find a way to tell the stories that inspire them, regardless of the conditions of “independent cinema” at large. That’s not to be glib. I know firsthand how hard that road is but I think as long as there are inspired filmmakers, there will be inspired films.”

See also:
» The Passion of Laurie David

This article was originally published in The Dominion Post, 2004.