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<i>Spellbound</i> Provides Portrait of Young American Spellers - 2003-06-07

A spelling bee competition might not be considered the most compelling subject for a documentary film. But "Spellbound" not to be confused with the 1945 Hitchcock classic- has been lauded by critics and audiences alike, winning 15 film festival awards. It was also nominated for "Best Documentary" at the 2002 Academy Awards. Just released widely across America to coincide with this year's National Spelling Bee finals in Washington, D.C., "Spellbound" is more than a film about young people in a competition. It presents a cross-section of America through the efforts of eight young spelling champs.

For Spellbound director Jeff Blitz and producer Sean Welch, it was a chance viewing of the spelling bee finals on the sports cable channel "ESPN" that sparked the idea of making a film about the competition. In Washington to help promote his film, Mr. Welch says it was the combination of suspense, emotion and even humor that makes the bee the best of "reality" storytelling. "The Spelling Bee at the national level even the regional level- is really a celebration of education. And it's a non-contact, but competitive, sport.

In America, because we speak English and English is a non-phonetic language, it makes the spelling or figuring out of these words that much more intriguing. To see these kids on stage in front of hundreds of people in the immediate audience and millions if they make it to the ESPN [televised] rounds- is something magical. To watch these kids go through their individual processes to figure out how these words are spelled, is almost like watching a magician perform a trick," he says.

April Degideo is one of the student finalists profiled in the 1999 Spelling Bee shown in the film Spellbound. She helped out with this year's just-completed bee finals and explains why she was attracted to the competition. "The Spelling Bee is important in that you can strive for something and that's such a part of America that you'll have to encounter throughout your life. So [the bee] prepares you for that," she says.

Another bee volunteer, Emily Stagg, says it's easier now four years after her last spelling competition, to gain some perspective on the bee's relative importance. "All the people who come here [seem to] think the Spelling Bee as a little too important. On the flip side of the coin, it's nice if you can do it. That's awesome, and it really does help to shape your life and who you are. But if you can't, and it's not something you're interested in, there's life beyond the walls of the Grand Hyatt [hotel] here," she says.

Producer Sean Welch says the struggles he and director Blitz made for their first documentary may be seen as a metaphor of the struggles of the student spellers. They faced enormous obstacles in the world of commercial filmmaking and resorted to using very creative financing -borrowing lots of money on credit: "The two of us financed it with 14 credit cards. We continued undaunted after we applied for some grants that didn't come through. We were concerned because it was our first project- that had we approached some studio with our idea, they would have told us it was a cute subject matter and weren't interested. Then they might go out and do it themselves," he says. "If we could have convinced someone or some company to fund this, we weren't sure we could deliver. It took the two of us [time] to learn to use the equipment. Prior to this, we had never operated a camera or never used sound equipment to record. We actually had a friend come over and teach us how to use the camera and how to record sound. And a couple of days later, we hit the road."

After dogged sleuthing to find just the right students to profile in Spellbound, the filmmakers spent weeks following their subjects at home and at the finals. Nupur Lala who won the 1999 National Spelling Bee- says the documentary filmmakers did not disturb her spelling studies. "It was not intrusive at all. They respected our privacy and made sure we were comfortable through the filming. They knew the more comfortable we were with them, the better the footage they'd get. So we never felt we were intruded upon whatsoever and they were very respectful and sensitive," she says.

Paige Kimble, director of the National Spelling Bee, is shown briefly in the Spellbound film and likes the finished movie. But she admits that, at first, she was skeptical of its objective. "The filmmakers know I was not the most helpful person when they approached me with this project. I was worried they would produce a negative piece about the Bee," she says. "My role as director is to make sure that the Bee gets good publicity. Because I didn't know [the filmmakers], I was cordial with them but I wasn't exactly helpful!"

As one of the film's subjects, Nupur Lala who will soon begin studying biology at the University of Michigan- says she gives Spellbound a positive review. "I was very pleased with my family's portrayal in the film and [my parents] felt likewise. We felt that Sean and Jeff showed us as we were, pure and unadulterated. There was no 'spin' put in the movie. I loved the movie all the way through. It captured the suspense and the thrills of the National Spelling Bee. At the same time, it showed a very warm and human side to it," she says.

Student April Degideo who will begin studying at New York University later this year- says the bee has been a rewarding experience. "The spelling bee has increased my drive and ambition dramatically. I've definitely become more dedicated to my goals. It increased my vocabulary and helped my writing," she says. "I want to get into journalism so spelling has definitely helped me down that road."

And student Emily Stagg who begins study soon at Carleton College in Minnesota- says being profiled in the Spellbound documentary has made her something of a celebrity. She recalls a recent school orientation incident. "All of a sudden, it all clicked. She was, like, 'I saw you at the movie theater. I saw you! You're famous! You're famous!' And I was, like, 'You've been hangin' out with me all week and you didn't know? You didn't know anything?' It was really strange," she says.

Emily Stagg, one of eight students profiled in the new documentary film Spellbound, which has won wide acclaim. Producer Sean Welch says he and director Jeff Blitz have a short-term goal of "resting for a couple months" before beginning on their next project.