Sarasota native Sam Rega grew up attending the Sarasota Film Festival with his family, and became an intern with the festival during his senior year at the Out-of-Door Academy. That early passion for film propelled him into a career in the industry. His newest documentary, Spelling the Dream will begin streaming on Netflix on Saturday, May 23.
Rega and producer Chris Weller began production on the film in 2017. The documentary follows four Indian-American children through the ups and downs of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, an intense competition that is aired each year on ESPN.
"Chris and I found the featured contestants through YouTube and through organizations like the nonprofit North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee," says Rega. "We connected with the founders, and they welcomed us with open arms." Once the contestants were chosen, Rega met with the kids and their families at the South Asian Spelling Bee and over Skype calls. The film crew went to visit contestants many times, documenting everything from their daily training to regional and national competitions.
"I'll admit it was nerve-wracking watching our spellers compete," says Rega. "We definitely had moments where we were devastated, but we were rooting for our spellers the entire time."
The documentary features cameos from well-known Indian-American figures like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN host Fareed Zakaria, Scripps National Spelling Bee host Kevin Negandhi and comedian Hari Kondabolu. "We knew that these celebrities had associations to the community and to spelling," says Rega. "Once we were able to get in touch and explain the story, they fell in love with it."
One of the biggest questions the documentary seeks to answer is why the Indian-American community continues to dominate the National Spelling Bee and why spelling is so important to them. "A lot of it has to do with how immigration works coming to this country, which is rooted in education," says Rega. According to Rega, changes to American immigration policy made in the 1960s encouraged highly educated Indians to immigrate to America, and that generation imparted its emphasis on education to its children.
"Another factor is when ESPN began to televise the national bee in 1994," says Rega. "Kids saw someone like themselves on national television, and thought, 'If they can do it, I can, too.'"
Rega's passion for each speller's journey extends beyond the screen. He keeps in touch with the families, and has seen their reaction to the recent cancelation of the 2020 National Spelling Bee because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "These kids are very mature," says Rega. "While they are disappointed, they understand how serious this current pandemic is, and why the bee was canceled."
"The National Spelling Bee is an American tradition," says Rega. "It is appointment television." While this year's bee is canceled, you can stream Rega's Netflix film as a substitute.
Spelling the Dream will begin streaming on Netflix on Saturday, May 23. For more information about the documentary, click here.