Everyone Wants the Last Word
'Spellbound', Jeffrey Blitz's Oscar-nominated documentary, chronicles the journey eight thirteen year-olds make in their bid to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. Blitz's subjects come from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds - from Angela Arenivar, whose parents work in a cattle ranch in Missouri, and Neil Kadakia, an Indian immigrant, to Emily Stagg and her well-to-do New Haven lifestyle.
In the first half of the film, Blitz peers into the lives of each of the eight contestants. He follows Angela's father around the ranch, Neil's father takes him on a tour of his second house, which he built from scratch. Blitz interviews the kids, their parents, teachers, friends, spelling coaches. We learn that Neil's grandfather in India has paid a thousand priests to pray for his victory, and that if his grandson wins, he will feed five thousand poor people. April DeGideo studies spellings for ten hours every day, refusing to even go to the mall with her friends. During the course of the interviews, it becomes clear that all these children stand apart from their milieu and are really comfortable only when they meet like-minded people. For some of them, winning the Spelling Bee is a matter of proving to themselves that they are capable. For the immigrants, winning it translates into realising the American dream. Leaving their native country to eke out a better future for their children, the immigrant parents see this opportunity as symbolic of the fact that in America any thing is possible.
D-Day has finally arrived. As the contest gets underway, Blitz masterfully evokes nail-biting tension with big close-ups as the participants agonize, ponder, stumble over the words they are asked to spell. Hyperactive Harry Altman, makes excruciating faces while labouring over 'cephalalgia'. Neil comes frighteningly close to losing while spelling 'Darjeeling'. The subsequent joy of getting a spelling right and proceeding to the next round is palpable. Blitz has succeeded in making all the kids equally endearing, and we would hate to see any of them lose. But slowly, 249 contestants are whittled down to just one, who gets to have the last word.
Screenings of this film:
|2003/2004 Spring Term – (35mm)|