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April 06, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
“The spelling bee,” says director Sam Rega, “is one of the most iconic American traditions.”
Most of us remember participating in school spelling bees, maybe even competing in grander spelling events. However, “Breaking the Bee” doesn’t just explore spelling bees, it follows four Indian-American students, ages 7-14, on their quest to win the biggest bee prize at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
What’s especially interesting about this story are the statistics. According to the film’s website: “Since 1999, 18 of the last 22 winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have been Indian-American, making the incredible trend one of the longest in sports history.”
Spelling bees are like a competitive sport for kids, both mentally and physically. They train and study and train some more in order to compete at an incredibly high level of intellectual prowess. “These are children no older than high school competing in something at times more rigorous than a physical sport,” Rega explains. “It shows if you dedicate yourself to something, anything is possible.”
“I was intrigued that this was a story that people hadn't heard of, yet it was happening right before our eyes,” Rega continues. In November 2015, while working at the Business Insider news publication, he was approached by his colleague and now producer, Chris Weller, with an idea.
“He (Weller) has followed the Scripps National Spelling Bee for years and had come to notice a greater number of Indian-American participants and winners,” says Rega. “He hit me with some stats and explained we were in the midst of a two decade spelling bee dynasty. I was instantly hooked.”
Why this story? He explained, “This is a group of people who have found immense success in a short period of time. These families are first- and second-generation Americans who are competing in something that's not necessarily their first language.”
One might assume that winning a national championship might be the parent’s dream but Rega explains that it’s a family activity within these “spelling families,” as in everyone works together. “From the minute we walked into the homes, you knew these children had such a passion for spelling, and the motivation came from within.” The competitors are well-rounded and participate in multiple activities inside and outside of school; they are able to talk about sports and politics. Rega says, “They were so multi-faceted that I would laugh and ask myself, ‘What was I doing when I was their age?’”
“Breaking the Bee” is making its world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival and Rega is thrilled. “It's a true filmmakers’ film festival," he says. "To premiere at a festival where everyone cares about your film is very special, and we couldn't think of a better place to debut.”
Photo: Sam Rega directed “Breaking the Bee,” his third documentary feature film.
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