“I like competition, and I like to see people push themselves to the max,” says Sam Rega, director of Breaking the Bee, a documentary that screens April 6 and 8 during the Cleveland International Film Festival. “I participated in a bee in elementary school in New Jersey. … And I still remember the girl who knocked me out.”
Breaking the Bee chronicles the journey of four Indian-American students, including Akash Vukoti who lived in Cleveland from age 1 to 5, as they compete in the 2017 National Bee. “I don’t see the trend ending any time soon, it’s self-perpetuating right now,” says Rega. He talks with us about the amazing streak.
Q: Why did Akash stand out?
A: He’s a very special 8-year-old who is wise and intelligent beyond his years. Akash was the first ever first grader to participate in the Nationals in 2016, and he won his first bee at age 4. He reads and writes three languages, is a member of Mensa and is a geography whiz as well. He’ll be there for the film’s world premiere in Cleveland.
Q: How did Indian-American dominance in spelling come to be?
A: When we started this film, the question was if there was something more to this than just the numbers? The change in immigration laws in 1965 was really a perfect storm of events, allowing many Indian families to relocate to America. Now it’s osmosis. … These children are doing something that originates as a family event.
Q: Some people feel these children are programmed by their parents and in some ways being deprived of a normal childhood. Do you agree?
A: We kept an open mind about that and we truly did not find it. There are plenty of parents on a football field who are very pushy. What about a child playing AAU basketball or travel baseball and soccer? Are they missing out on their childhoods? No. If you love playing the piano and your friends want to go to a movie, you’re going to that recital. In the end, these kids truly want it. They know you’re not going to succeed by practicing 10 minutes a day.
Q: What is the atmosphere like during the Scripps finals?
A: The adrenaline there is 10 times of what you see on ESPN. It’s a spectator sport just like any physical sport. These kids spend an extended period of time on that stage, waiting for their turn. The amount of drama is amazing.