108 Suhayl Saadi, lain Sinclair
1 10 Matt Groening
DOCUMENTARY DVD SPELLBOUND (U) 96min
(Metrodome DVD retarli 0....
One of the most entertaining, suspenseful and humane films of 2003, Jeff Blitz’s documentary examines a peculiarly American phenomenon, the annual spelling bee. Over 9m students from all over the US compete in the regional heats, with roughly 250 going on to the Washington finals. Blitz and his producer Sean Welch selected a dozen spellers from a variety of regional, socio-economic and racial backgrounds. But whether it’s an African- American girl from Washington’s inner city projects, or an eccentric Jewish boy from New Jersey, the challenge is the same. On stage, in front of a live audience and TV cameras, they must spell such arcane words as cephalalgia (‘a pain in the head’).
Initially filmed in their home environment, the spellers reveal their individual personalities and unique study methods. Eleven are followed from start to finish; eight make the final cut. The best DVD extra is footage of the three spellers who were excised. The youngest, Allyson; country boy Bradley; and Cody, who strikes out on the
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Could you spell ‘cephalalgia’ in front of a TV camera?
word ‘hemeralopia’. But what’s missing is the nail-biting tension generated by the film’s unsung heroine, editor Yana Gorskaya, herself a Russian immigrant.
Fortunately, Gorskaya appears alongside Jeff Blitz and producer Sean Welch on the commentary track, where her incisive contributions add depth and context to the background and anecdotal material.
There is far more at stake in the spelling bee
‘FOR ANGELA, HER MAST ERY OF ENGLISH IS ALSO A PASSPORT TO HER ACCEPTANCE'
than mere spelling, as Angela’s story vividly illustrates. Her father, Mexican ranch hand Ubaldo, is an illegal immigrant who smuggled his family into Texas some years before. He still does not speak English. So for the perky, clever, self-motivated Angela, her mastery of the English language is also her passport to acceptance as an American.
‘When Angela won her regional heat, Sean and l burst into tears,’ Blitz told me last year. ‘In part because we cared so much about Angela, and
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128 Frank Black, John Fardell
we sensed how important her victory was for her. But also, in part, because we knew we had the cornerstone of our documentary. For Angela, I believe that this quest to excel in the spelling bee is not only a personal one, but also a fulfilment of her parents’ American dream.’
Yet despite the intense pressures of the sudden-death final, in which one wrong letter means instant elimination, the spellers are more supportive than antagonistic. As producer Sean Welch told me, the real enemy is Noah Webster, compiler of the dreaded dictionary: ‘The kids themselves told us that, whether they were at the microphone spelling, or sitting behind another speller as they tried to figure out one of these incredibly difficult words, they never felt like it was ‘kid versus kid’. They always felt like it was ‘kid versus dictionary’. If you will forgive the pun, Spellbound has already proved itself to be a truly word-of—mouth success. (Nigel Floyd)
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