Jeffrey Blitz' account of the 1999 National Spelling Bee, Spellbound, makes for an interesting case study in the factors that make a documentary successful. When it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, it must have seemed much fresher than it does now, as the very same year that it was released the television series American Idol was just beginning a 13-year streak of following essentially the same formula: young people converge for a high-pressure competition of skill, with the backgrounds and personalities of selected participants (especially those with colorful quirks, or who notably fit or defy stereotypes) exploited as human interest stories. Viewed 15 years later, this outplayed formula is just one of the deficits that should render Spellbound less than-effective. Technically, it's a work of thoroughly perfunctory craft, sticking to a standard format of intercutting chronological events with interviews of significant players, and both its photography and its music completely lack any spark or inspiration. In an era when hot social issues seem to be the primary subjects of high profile nonfiction filmmaking, Spellbound also seems downright quaint — even in 2003, Spellbound lost the Oscar to Michael Moore's slick, sprawling and provocative Bowling for Columbine — so why was it so popular then, and why does it still work so well now?
Subject is king in documentary filmmaking, and with the right story in the hands of a competent editor, it's tough to screw up. Spellbound, perhaps fortuitously, was gifted with eight engaging and/or intriguing student subjects entering a dramatic setting that is both familiar in microcosm (everyone has been taught to spell) and exotic in macrocosm (very few of us have competed at a national level in any discipline). Although Blitz's coverage of the National Spelling Bee is sometimes wanting, he simply captures the experience of this annual ritual: the personal investment, the nerves, the pride, the expectation, the failure, the sportsmanship, and, most importantly, the enthusiasm with which each competitor approaches their exemplary skill. Even with countless competitive reality shows currently treading similar water, competition is a subject of indefatigable interest, especially when glimpsed through the point-of-view of children, to whom every experience is fresh and rich and defining.
Quite different from today's programs which focus on adolescent pageantry, Spellbound is, thankfully, free of sensationalism; there are no stage-parents bullying their children to do better, there's no nasty gamesmanship between kids, no overwrought emotional reactions, and no cries of "foul" or litigating of shocking decisions (one student, after his exit, tamely suggests that the judge mispronounced his eliminating word). the spirit of the National Spelling Bee seems to be one of camaraderie amongst smart, nice and civil kids, who care about what they do, but from within a healthy perspective and completely lacking in guile. Spellbound, as piece of work, may not be anything special, but it doesn't need to be for the genuine qualities of the kids it depicts to shine through it quite brightly.
Spellbound was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Hannah Keefer, who can be found on Flickchart and Letterboxd under the username purplecow17. Spellbound is Hannah's 2nd favorite documentary out of 37, ranking at #590 (77%) out of the 2568 total movies on her Flickchart. It's been added to my own Flickchart at #756 (80%), where it comes in at #27 out of the 124 documentaries on my chart.
As movies are added to this list, I'll add them to Letterboxd, here: