Director Sam Rega sat down with Kajal Magazine to discuss his documentary on South Asian-American success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee
The Scripps National Spelling Bee has, for years, showcased some of the America’s top young spellers from across the country. In the last two decades, the uber-competitive world of spelling has seen what can only be described as a dynasty of South Asian-American Spelling Bee winners. In the last 19 years, South Asian Americans have gone 15-4, including a ten year winning streak.
The question on how these kids, from a community that made up less than 1% of the population in 2010, have had such a herculean dominance of the sport of spelling is the subject of Sam Rega’s documentary, Breaking the Bee.
With commentary and interviews from some of the most recognizable South Asian’s in America (including Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, Hair Kondabolu, and Kevin Negandhi), Rega follow’s the story of four spellers, aged 7 thru 14.
We had the chance to sit down with Director, Sam Rega, to talk more about making this documentary, and what he learned in the process.
Kajal Magazine: What was the inspiration to make this documentary? And beyond that, the approach you had when you initially began putting together the narrative?
Sam Rega: In the fall of 2015, I was working at Business Insider as a Senior Producer. I had just finished directing a documentary called “League of Millions.” It followed a team of professional Esports players in their quest to be world champions of the game “League of Legends.” Chris Weller, the producer of “Breaking the Bee,” was a writer at Business Insider at the time. Having seen and enjoyed “League of Millions,” he approached me with a fascinating idea. Chris has followed the Scripps National Spelling Bee for years and had come to notice a greater number of Indian-American participants and winners. He revealed some stats to me and explained we were in the midst of a two decade spelling bee dynasty. I was instantly hooked. After months of research, attending bees, and speaking to families, we realized this was more than a coincidence. It was a perfect storm of events. We had our film. We were intrigued that this was a story that people hadn’t heard of, yet it was happening right before our eyes.
What was your initial expectation about this documentary, versus the final product?
Chris and I had the amazing fortune of being able to create this documentary from the vision we had in the very beginning. We had such a supportive team from our producers to our cast and crew. Every person who had a hand in this film made it what it is. You take away one of those people, and it’s not the same film. We wanted to celebrate the achievements of these spellers and explore how this trend came to be, and that’s exactly what our film does. If anything, it exceeded our expectations because so many people wanted to share their stories and were incredibly insightful in their interviews. Lastly, we are so grateful to all of our families who welcomed us into their homes to tell their stories. By the end of filming, we all felt like we were family.
A couple of the South Asian interviewees mentioned the role of representation for the community. Speaking with both the spellers and their families, what was your impression of the value of the representation the Spelling Bee provides for South Asian-Americans?
Unfortunately, people still put other people in a box. Stereotypes die hard. We have a very poignant scene where we discuss representation of South Asian-Americans in the U.S. and the racist backlash that happens almost every time a South Asian-American speller wins. Hari Kondabolu tells an amazing story that for such a long time South Asian-Americans were only portrayed as stereotypes on TV and in film. The Spelling Bee shows this community as themselves and succeeding in a long-standing American competition and that hadn’t been seen before in this country. So the Spelling Bee opens the eyes to so many people who are blinded by terrible stereotypes.
There was the impression that the family dynamic in South Asian families plays a part in why so many of these spellers do well in the Bee. What did you find most impactful about the relationship between spellers and their families?
ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi has a fantastic line in the film where he says “It’s a family affair throughout the whole process.” This is so true. The parents are the coaches, the siblings are the assistant coaches, and the spellers are the players. The most important thing is that the parents encourage and support, they do not push. There is the misconception of “tiger parents,” and this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The parents understand that the drive and motivation must come from the spellers. If these spellers didn’t dedicate themselves to spelling, they’d have another activity (and most of them do participate in a variety of extracurriculars). You cannot achieve at such a high level if you are not driven by it and [if you don’t have] a strong coaching system behind you.
What is the reason is for the longevity of South Asian American dominance in the Spelling Bee?
It’s a perfect storm of events that created this trend and the wheels are in motion to sustain it. Much recognition has to be given to the North South Foundation who year after year creates a strong spelling foundation for these children. You also have the South Asian Spelling Bee, which gives these children another opportunity to compete outside of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. So these spelling bees give the South Asian-American students the ability to study and compete all year. Additionally, the Spelling Bee continues to gain popularity every year. It’s broadcasted on ESPN, it trends on social media, and nearly every media outlet covers it. When a community sees someone from their community succeed, they are inspired to achieve as well. Every single South Asian winner or participant is a major inspiration to the next generation.
How much of a sport is the Spelling Bee to the South Asian community?
It’s THE sport. Hari calls it “The Indian Superbowl.” This is something that the entire community rallies around. It’s a chance to see friends and family. It’s a chance to travel. It checks a lot of boxes. It’s academic, it’s family-oriented, it teaches life lessons. It is no different than families getting together for Little League baseball games. And these children do it all year long, not only studying but competing in multiple bees. Children who are devoted to a physical sport like baseball may play in a traveling league, a summer league, and for their high school league. It’s the same. Spelling happened to rise to the top for the South Asian community.
What was something that really surprised you while making this documentary?
It was surprising to see how much of the drive comes from the spellers. The speller wants to win. The speller wants to study. The speller wants to succeed. The parents aren’t forcing this. Some parents even told us that they always check in with their son or daughter to make sure they are still enjoying themselves. If the child didn’t want to continue spelling, then the parent would want he/she to pursue something they enjoy.
The 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee will be held May 29-31, airing on ESPN.