Bee-witched and Bee-wildered

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 Christian marriage notice. 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 follows eight diverse students, aged 11 to 14, as they make their way to the national finals.

Angela of Perryton, Texas, is the daughter of an illegal immigrant ranchhand 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.

Other contestants include Ted, who lives in a doublewide trailer in rural Missouri; Ashley, an African American from the projects of Washington, D.C., and Harry, a garrulous 11-year-old who cracks Jewish jokes — and stumbles on the word, "banns." Also competing are Nupur, an East Indian girl from Tampa, Fla., and Emily, who comes from a privileged home in New Haven, Conn.

"People told me if I was Catholic, I might have known it," his mother says, afterward. "I [just] feel bad for that boy from Texas who got ‘yenta.’"

Blitz has a different perspective.

"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 over iced tea at a Brentwood coffee house. "You see how egalitarian English is, because it absorbs words from all the different languages of the people who come here. So it makes absolute sense that a non-Jew from Texas would get a Yiddish word, and Harry, a Jew from New Jersey, would get ‘banns.’ 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, the editor of a Yiddishist-socialist magazine, her mother eked out a living selling quilts.

"During that period, Nazis were fleeing to Argentina and a wave of anti-Semitism swept the country," Blitz said. "My mother was forced to spend nights in jail."

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 their 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.

"There were rounds where I could literally not say a word over the course of a full eight minutes," he said. "I stuck with it, not because I was self destructive, but because I wanted to do what the world said I couldn’t."

Ultimately, Blitz improved and won state championships.

"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 USC’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. "

Blitz was also spellbound by the innate drama of the competition, in which misspellers are eliminated by the dreaded "ding" of a bell. The tension reminded him of the Agatha Christie thriller, "And Then There Were None," in which characters are systematically knocked off by a killer. He felt he could structure his documentary like a mystery feature film.

To identify his "cast," he became a sleuth of sorts, studying the pool of potential contestants and printing out charts of 1998 contestants. He narrowed the list to those who had made it to the second day of competition and who hadn’t lucked out on easy words. To find promising newcomers, he contacted spelling coaches and national bee representatives.

When he had narrowed his list to around 30 students, he called his friend, Sean Welch, who had produced Blitz’s award-winning student film, "Wonderland."

"Initially I was dubious about signing on," Welch, 38, told The Journal. "I was not entirely convinced that a film on spelling would be all that interesting."

He changed his mind when he visited Blitz’s Fairfax-area apartment and saw large printouts of prospective interviewees plastering the living room walls.

"We sat down and Jeff described how he would tell these incredibly rich, complex American stories," Welch said. "I told him I was game."

The filmmakers financed the project by signing up for 14 credit cards; an early purchase was a Canon XL-1 camera.

"We couldn’t afford to hire a crew, so we figured we’d shoot the film ourselves, although we had no idea how to use the equipment," Welch said.

After a friend taught them some skills, the novices spent hours wandering the streets, filming neighbors watering the lawn or retrieving a newspaper.

"A couple days later, we hit the road," Welch said.

While interviewing disparate contestants over six months in 1999, they discovered the students had only one thing in common: the drive to succeed. They were surprised by the dearth of "stage parents": "It turned out most kids dragged their folks into it," Blitz said.

As for critics who view the bee as a waste of time, "They’re missing the point," Blitz said. "The real benefit doesn’t come from spelling, but from learning you can achieve something massive in life."

"Spellbound," in turn, 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. The film stands out in a year of stellar documentaries, including Michael Moore’s "Bowling for Columbine and Andrew Jarecki’s "Capturing the Friedmans."

One fan is Blitz’s mentor, USC professor Mark J. Harris, who won an Oscar for his 1997 Holocaust-themed documentary, "The Long Way Home."

Harris 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 feels 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 Dec. 16, at 8 p.m. on Cinemax.