New Netflix Documentary Is Going Inside the High-Stakes Road to the National Spelling Bee
The film explores, in particular, why Indian Americans have long dominated in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee
Can you spell riveting?
A new documentary premiering on Netflix next month is exploring the challenging and competitive world of spelling bees — and why Indian-American kids, in particular, have always dominated.
Spelling the Dream, from director Sam Rega and producer Chris Weller, highlights several recent participants in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, all Indian Americans who one person compares in the documentary to the “Michael Jordans” of their field.
“[Weller], the film’s producer, came to me with the intriguing stat that Indian Americans had been winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee year after year,” Rega tells PEOPLE. “I was intrigued because it was a moment in time happening right before our eyes, but very little had been reported, which we were surprised to learn.”
The filmmakers took months to research and reach out to spellers — who must be under 14 to compete — and their families, documenting them as they prepped as well as when they competed at the actual bees. In general, training for the bees is a “family affair,” the director says.
“We spent a lot of team with our spellers and families,” Rega tells PEOPLE. “We got to know them well. By the end of production we felt like family and you couldn’t help but want them to succeed. We felt the joy of winning and the pain of defeat.”
That connection, Weller says, made choosing what to feature and what not to in the documentary difficult. He explains, “It was never easy editing out what felt like important parts of the community’s story.”
Both men learned a lot about what elevates someone to the level of an elite speller, and the intricacies behind learning words — which viewers will get to watch in the doc.
“My assumption going into this was that kids would actually read the dictionary. … Not true,” Weller tells PEOPLE. “There is a whole cottage industry of spelling coaches and software that facilitates much more efficient learning and studying, and these kids are really close with one another, and they often trade study tips, hold independent spelling bees, and share new words they’ve learned.”
He continues, “With so much wisdom getting passed down through spelling generations, today’s spellers have a much more refined, almost surgical, approach compared to years past.”
Unfortunately, this year’s National Spelling Bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s just a shame, really. These kids put years into preparing for the bee, and for many of them it’s their last shot at putting all that hard work to the test,” Weller says.
Still, Rega says, he’s looking at the positives.
“While they may not have the opportunity to show their skills on stage, they’ve gained an immense amount from spelling and no one will ever take that away from them. From dedication to perseverance to sacrifice to deep knowledge of language to public speaking, the list of benefits goes on.”
Watch Spelling the Dream on Netflix when it begins streaming on June 3.