Word Power: Decoding the Buzz Behind Spelling Bee

American documentary maker Sam Rega's film, Breaking the Bee, explores Indian American families' fascination with the spelling bee contest.


When documentary-maker Sam Rega got the chance to make a film on Indian American students who have over the years dominated the winners’ list of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, he was completely hooked to the concept. The New York-based filmmaker was intrigued about why more people were not talking about the subject.

The idea was indeed compelling — 18 out of the 22 winners of the Spelling Bee, one of United States’ most iconic competitions, have been of Indian-American descent since 1999.

The quest to get to the bottom of this made Rega meet the United States-based Indian-origin families and children who are invested in the idea of wining the prestigious competition. It made the American filmmaker see many sides to the competition and finally make the documentary — Breaking the Bee— that explored their journeys.

Sam Rega, the director of Breaking the Bee

“I was working at Business Insider and my colleague, Chris Weller, a writer and the producer of the documentary, approached me with an intriguing idea. He has followed the Scripps National Spelling Bee for years and noticed a greater number of Indian-American participants and winners,” Rega tells Little India.

The film was first conceived in the fall of 2015. “As we entered production, and the 2016 election came and went, we quickly realized that our film resonated more with the debate around immigration and Americanness growing,” he recalls. “We have a poignant scene where we discuss the racist backlash these children receive on social media,” Rega adds. He feels that the film is a harbinger of the message that these are children after all, and should be, treated as children.

The documentary is set to be screened at the New York Indian Film Festival in Manhattan on May 12.

Breaking the Bee explores and lays out multiple facets of the competition — the families of students, the young participants, and the circumstances and challenges faced by them. “After months of research, attending spelling bees and speaking to families, we realized this was more than a coincidence,” the 32-year-old filmmaker says. “It was a perfect storm of events. We had our film. I was intrigued that this was a story that people hadn’t heard of, yet it was happening right before our eyes.”

For winners of the competition, happiness and victory is only one aspect of the competition. A relatively unknown aspect of their lives is the pressure and challenges that these young competitors brave. More often than not, it means that the child gets to watch less movies or miss a birthday party occasionally. “It’s the same with any endeavor a child pursues, whether baseball, piano, or spelling. If you want to reach the top, you have to put in the work and make sacrifices,” adds Rega, who has been working on documentaries for the last decade.

On a lighter note, he says that shooting with the Indian American families gave him a glimpse of the Indian hospitality and culture. As the cameras started rolling, he not only got a better understanding of the entire process of making the young guns spelling champions, but also became a part of it. “When the cameras stopped rolling, we were invited to stay and eat home-cooked meals. After multiple shoot days over the course of several months, we felt like family,” Rega reminisces.

Participating in the spelling contests is often a family affair. The child is the motivation, and the parents take on the role of a coach. “Even the siblings help. Studying varies from family to family and someone will pretend they are on stage and spell words while others will draw pictures to help illustrate root words,” he says.

Rega has not only featured champions who have toiled day in and out to bring the Scripps National Spelling Bee trophy home, but also those who did not make the cut. At the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2017, after a speller missed a word in one of the final rounds, Rega spoke with the father and expressed sympathies over the elimination of son, who was appearing in the contest in his final year of eligibility. The father, while pointing to his son who was running around with his friends, told him how the competition is so much more than just spellings; it’s about the journey.

“Sure, spellers will feel bad, but they bounce back quickly. Remember, they are just kids. For so many of them, it’s the excitement to be at an event and hang out with their friends,” says Rega, adding that the competition goes far beyond the dictionary.

For now, the director is looking forward to his summer wedding and starting a new life. Rega, whose first movie, Miami Noir: The Arthur E. Teele Story, explored the events that led to the public suicide of Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele, is also exploring several new ideas in the true crime genre as well as the competitive sports world for his next project.

He has so far worked on various themes in his films, including following a team of professional video game players in their quest for world championship in his 2016 documentary titled League of Millions. He also edited the New York City nightclub documentary Limelight, the Netflix hit Dawg Fight that explores the underground boxing scene in Miami, as well the VH1 mini-series The Tanning of America exploring how hip-hop changed the country.

Breaking the Bee is perhaps only the beginning of Rega’s fascination with India. He hopes to travel to the country in the near future. “I would absolutely love to make a film in India,” he says. “I know there are so many incredible stories to tell and voices to be heard. If anyone has an idea or story, email me.”

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