los angeles | In Jeff Blitz’s documentary “Spellbound,” Harry Altman grimaces and fidgets at the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The Jewish sixth-grader has been asked to spell “banns,” which refers to a church announcement of an upcoming marriage. He’s never heard of it.
“Banns, banns, banns,” he whispers into the microphone, scrunching his blue eyes and revealing a mouthful of braces. “There’s gotta be something I can think of.”
It’s one of the tenser moments in “Spellbound,” a quirky, excruciatingly suspenseful film spotlighting the distinctly American phenomenon of the bee. The movie, which premieres Tuesday, Dec. 16 on Cinemax, follows eight diverse students, ages 11 to 14, as they make their way to the national finals.
Angela of Perryton, Texas, is the daughter of an illegal immigrant ranch hand who barely speaks English; she creates homemade crossword puzzles to learn words. April, whose dad manages a Pennsylvania pub, spends summers studying the dictionary nine hours a day. Neil of San Clemente has an affluent East Indian father who supervises a rigorous regimen of drills and tutors. Back in India, a relative has paid 1,000 people to chant prayers for Neil during the bee.
Another contestant is Harry, a garrulous 11-year-old who cracks Jewish jokes — and stumbles on the word “banns.”
“What’s amazing about the bee is that it’s not just this incredible mixture of cultures in the kids, but in the words, too,” the articulate director said.
“You see how egalitarian English is, because it absorbs words from all the different languages of the people who come here. That’s part of what’s great about America: you’re confronted with this great mixture of cultures and words.”
Blitz, the son of a South American Jewish immigrant, views the bee as “an American dream story.” The contestants, many of them first-generation American, personify the adage that one can improve oneself through hard work. The 35-year-old filmmaker was raised with that philosophy in an upper-middle-class household in Ridgewood, N.J.
His mother, a pediatrician, grew up in Mosesville, a primitive Jewish town in rural Argentina. Upon the death of her father, her mother eked out a living selling quilts.
Despite the racism and the poverty, she put herself through medical school, one of few women to do so at the time. Eventually, she secured a residency at a New York City hospital, where she met Blitz’s father, a research psychologist.
Growing up in a Conservative home, Jeffrey Blitz demonstrated a similar flair for tackling the nearly impossible. As a teenage stutterer, he decided to join the high school debate team, initially with disastrous results.
“I’ve always been drawn to people who attempt Herculean tasks,” he said. Which is why he was riveted by bee contestants when he chanced to see the 1997 finals on C-SPAN in his last year at University of Southern California’s graduate film school.
“These kids were trying to master the dictionary, which is insurmountable,” he said. “There are half a million words, many of them arcane. What 9-year-old in his right mind would think that was possible? Watching the bee felt like this inexplicable magic trick; I couldn’t fathom how children could spell words I had never even heard of. “
“Spellbound” proved a massive achievement for Blitz. The movie won numerous film festival prizes, rave reviews and a 2003 Oscar nomination; it is one of the six top-grossing documentaries of all time.
One fan is Blitz’s mentor, USC Professor Mark J. Harris, who has a theory about why “Spellbound” is so successful: “The film reinforces our beliefs about what democracy and meritocracy in America should mean,” he said.
Harris also believes the movie has Jewish values: “We are, after all, the People of the Book and the Word, and we like our words to be spelled correctly,” he said. “Certainly Jews still believe very strongly in the value of education and the power of learning to transform your life. So do these kids and their parents.”
Blitz, for his part, agrees: “The bee is such an inclusive vision of America, which feels very Jewish to me,” he said.
“Spellbound” premieres 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, on Cinemax.