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« DVD Journal: "Femme Fatale" | Main | The Matrix Demoted »

May 24, 2003

News Flash: Documentary Achieves Potential!


I just got home from seeing “Spellbound” and despite the fact that I was eager to see it (which would usually have torpedoed my reaction to it like the German U-boat that got the Lusitania), I had the best time I’ve had at a movie in months and months.

Spellbound.jpg Another Relaxing Moment in Extreme Spelling

As you may be aware, “Spellbound” is a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee which follows eight contestants from their wins at regional “bees” to the Big One, broadcast on ESPN! (The film is in color, despite the black and white photo I've posted above.)

Because the kids are 11-14 years old, the coverage of the children’s life outside of spelling includes a lot of information on their parents, who range from a single mother in Washington D.C., to illegal immigrants in Texas, to Connecticut suburbanites, to families who have immigrated from India. I found it hard to root for or against any of the kids, as they are all personable, intelligent, incredibly hard working and quite level headed. None of them considers winning the contest to be a life-changing event, and none of them experiences any kind of epiphany in the course of the film. Even the parents—at least those that appear on camera—appear to be pretty okay people. Moreover, as the documentary makes clear, the whole format of a spelling bee introduces a ton of luck into the process, as everyone gets different words to spell.

Oddly, the very factors—no heroes, no villains, no and then everything changed moments, a big “luck factor”—that a Hollywood screenwriter would have altered or suppressed immediately didn’t make the film any less emotionally compelling. In fact, because some screenwriter wasn’t shoving tired screenwriting formulae down your throat, it allowed you to consider the more subtle patterns you were seeing—like the fact that the kids’ involvement with competitive spelling seemed to reflect story arcs that are multigenerational, family-centric and even culturally-centric. These kids, while not lacking for individuality, are also clearly the most current blossoms on very ancient trees.

The film, assuming it was shot in the spring of 1999, seems to have taken quite a while to be put together. In this case, the extra time paid off: while the photography is merely functional, the editing in general and the sound editing in particular are amazing. The juxtapositions, the choices about how the material is ordered, the way time is occasionally (and mostly sonically) compressed are more impressive than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

If, like me, you’ve ever thought that documentaries (at least theoretically) had a lot more potential than they usually manifest, this is the film you’ve been waiting for. Go out and see it. I’d worry about over praising it and ruining your enjoyment of it except that this particular flick seems immune to such considerations—and, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.



posted by Friedrich at May 24, 2003


So what was the word that won the spelling bee? I'm always interested coz I lost my sixth grade spelling bee on the word "decimal." Seriously.

Posted by: annette on May 25, 2003 3:13 PM

My son, who consistently gets C's and D's in English class, made it to regionals in the state spelling competition two years in a row. I have never seen such an uptight group of parents in my life. The kids were handling it just fine while the parents had nervous breakdowns in the bleachers.

Posted by: Deb on May 25, 2003 7:13 PM

Two years in a row! I'm impressed!

Posted by: annette on May 25, 2003 8:37 PM

We didn't get to compete in spelling bees outside school in my youth, but I did win the bee in Mr. Parker's fourth grade class. It took an extra 10 minutes to get me out. He finally got me on "feign."

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on May 26, 2003 4:04 AM

At my school, my ilk took a dive as soon as possible and then went back to our desks to read or draw in peace.

Posted by: j.c. on May 26, 2003 2:31 PM

I'm fascinated that everybody's comments revolve around spelling, when I thought the real focus of my post was the way an intelligent documentary can essentially beat a fiction film at its own game.

In one on-line discussion of "Spellbound" it was considered a sports film. I may have to start looking at more of these to understand the subtleties of what "Spellbound" got right. (Come to think of it, "Spellbound" was structurally kind of similar to, say, "Pumping Iron." Except that "Pumping Iron" didn't really provide much background for the family life of its contestants, or even of how their preparations for the contest differed. I guess I should rent it and take another look.

Anybody out there got examples of really good documentaries to recommend?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 26, 2003 5:26 PM

Sorry we missed your point---but you still didn't say what word won. One year it was oniminpeia (onamanipeia??)---see I'd have lost way earlier. :)

Posted by: annette on May 26, 2003 7:06 PM

Logorrhea was the winning word in '99.

Posted by: Mark on May 26, 2003 7:17 PM

onomonopaiea ???? that was without checking a dictionary...

Posted by: Deb on May 26, 2003 8:35 PM


everyone remembers the angst of learning to spell while only those with access other than PBS get to see documentaries.....Out here in rural Wisconsin, the only documentary that came to the local theater was one about Mohammed Ali which my husband and the son-who-can-kick-butt-in-spelling-bees-but-cant-get-a-decent-grade-in-spelling-class went to see.... Sorry!

I did like the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer" tho....

Posted by: Deb on May 26, 2003 9:46 PM


I had a similar experience watching Spellbound -- that it was better than most fictional films by far. Two other great documentaries that stand out in my mind are Robert Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads from the 80s.


Posted by: Michael on May 28, 2003 6:09 PM

The winning word this year was pococuente. Know what it means?? "Nonchalant."

Posted by: annette on May 29, 2003 9:50 PM

Ooops--I mean pococurante--see, these kids would have kicked my ass.

Posted by: annette on May 30, 2003 9:06 PM

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