Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Paper Clips: The Movie Revisited

When I arrived at the Virginia Film Festival on the last weekend of October, with an array of literally dozens of events and movie screenings available to me, one of the lowest priorities was to see Paper Clips.

To tell the truth, the description of the film in the festival program struck me as a bit sappy: “Premiering [here] ahead of its national release by Miramax, Paper Clips tells the inspiring story of a group of middle school children in Whitwell, Tennessee, who in 1998 embarked on a project to collect one paper clip for every soul lost in the Holocaust. This school project has since opened the mind of the students, their teachers, their families, and thousands of people around the world.”

My reluctance was set aside, however, after I heard an enthusiastic report about Paper Clips from my colleague, Tim Hulsey. Fortunately, a second screening was scheduled, which included remarks by producer Bob Johnson of The Johnson Group and co-director Elliot Berlin. I am glad I took advantage of that opportunity to see Paper Clips: It is an excellent film, at once entertaining, instructive, and moving.

One seldom attends a film of any type, much less a documentary, in which members of the audience can be heard sobbing. Moreover, there are few documentaries that can truly be said to be meant for the whole family. Paper Clips can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone, from children of eight years old to their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Paper Clips is being gradually released around the country, city by city, so that audiences everywhere can enjoy it, learn from it, and be moved by it. I recently had another opportunity to see it in Charlottesville; on May 6 it will open in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Des Moines, and other cities. (Release dates for cities across the country can be found here.)

Miramax presents Paper Clips ... coming to a theatre near you. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson Group)
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The film is really an outstanding example of its craft. Paper Clips shows what a documentary film can be and do far more effectively than anything in Michael Moore'’s portfolio. It has a flowing narrative structure but no narrator; participants in the story, notably the principal, teachers, and students of Whitwell Middle School, tell it themselves.

And what a story it is. We find ourselves in a small town in Tennessee, some 25 miles from where the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial was held, and only about 100 miles from where the Ku Klux Klan was founded. The school itself has no Catholics, no Jews, and virtually no ethnic minorities (just a tiny handful of black and Hispanic students). The teachers are faced with the question of how they can teach their students how to be tolerant of people who are unlike themselves, when such people are nowhere to be found in the pupils’ immediate environment.

Inspired by a seminar attended by the assistant principal, the faculty decides to teach a unit of Holocaust studies. By examining a truly evil phenomenon of hatred that led to wholesale slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, they hope to shed some light on contemporary problems of intolerance.

One day a student quite innocently asks what six million looks like. To answer this question, teachers and students embark on a project that proves to be boundless: They decide to collect 6 million paper clips (worn symbolically by Norwegian resisters to Nazi rule) and end up with more than 29 million of them.

Along the way they get letters from celebrities, including Presidents Clinton and Bush 41 and 43, actors Tom Bosley (who reads his letter on screen) and Tom Hanks, authors, athletes, soldiers who liberated the death camps, political leaders – and ordinary people, including the children of Holocaust survivors and the survivors themselves.

One of the most emotionally wrenching scenes in Paper Clips comes when several elderly Holocaust survivors travel from New York to visit the Whitwell students, and speak at a community meeting held at the local Methodist Church. They are among the last of their generation who can tell personal stories of suffering and stoicism. They put a human face on the book-learning that has engaged the students up to that point.

Then the problem emerges: Where to store 29 million paper clips?

The Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of The Johnson Group)
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The answer comes from two German journalists based in Washington, D.C., who had befriended the Whitwell students early in the project. Peter Schroeder and his wife, Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, search throughout Germany for a cattle car used in the 1930s and ‘40s, of the kind used to ship Holocaust victims to the concentration camps.

They find one – one actually used for that rueful purpose.

The students and the entire Whitwell Community pitch in to turn the railway car into a permanent memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

What is remarkable about this movie is that Paper Clips is nearly unique in treating the victims of the Holocaust as individuals, rather than as nameless members of some larger group – Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists. Moreover, it demonstrates in its earnest way how individual teachers and students – students only 13 or 14 years of age – can step up to perform an extraordinary task using ordinary means.

On my second viewing of Paper Clips, I was struck by the utter absence of the usual authority figures (namely, politicians) in guiding or – more realistically – taking undeserved credit for this project, which gained worldwide attention. One never sees even the town mayor taking part in the action, much less the Tennessee governor, or congressmen, or senators. This is a project undertaken by “average Joes” who, by confronting their own prejudices and attempting to learn the lessons of history, enable themselves to transmit larger, more universal values to the broader community. (The Whitwell Holocaust Memorial has become a destination for school field trips from all over the South and beyond.)

It would be easy, and somewhat glib, to accuse the filmmakers – particularly co-directors Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab – of being emotionally manipulative. The film is crafted meticulously so that scenes rotate from simple exposition of facts and explanation of the mundane to highly charged moments of intense angst or sadness and then back to the quotidian. Berlin and Fab know just when to pull back before their audience is overwhelmed.

Paper Clips co-director Elliot Berlin (left) and producer Bob Johnson at the Virginia Film Festival in October 2004. (Photo by Rick Sincere) Posted by Hello

Yet that is at the core of their message. The children of Whitwell did not do what they did simply to complete yet another homework assignment. They took it to heart because their hearts were touched by the actual experiences of millions of individuals who suffered and died at the hands of the heartless. One cannot comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust if one learns about it antiseptically.

Paper Clips, even aside from the emotional weight of its subject, is a film that shows what individuals can accomplish with few resources if they have the spirit and inner motivation to succeed. Fictional dramas might try to express this through a sports story (think Rocky or Rudy). Real-life dramas accomplish so much more, and have far longer-lasting results.

(Note: I wrote about the companion book to Paper Clips on December 17, 2004.)

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