Paper Clips

Heart-Tugging Documentary Proves That Prejudice Has A Cure

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
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Prejudice is an equal opportunity disease. Even the most prejudiced people in the world are not immune to being stereotyped and misunderstood themselves. Take, for example, rural Southerners living below both the Bible Belt and the poverty line. They're all a bunch of racist rednecks, aren't they? Not so fast, says the eye-opening new documentary Paper Clips.

The film journeys to tiny Whitwell, Tenn., where a handful of middle school educators decided to teach a little lesson in tolerance. You see, Whitwell is described, charitably, as a “homogenous” community. There's hardly a ripple in the white, Methodist, working-class surface of this economically depressed coal-mining community. It's within spitting distance of both the birthplace of the KKK and the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial. If there was ever a section of the country you'd feel obliged to stereotype as “redneck,” this would be it.

Hoping to expose their children to some other culture, the teachers built a class around the Holocaust. This in a community without so much as a single Jewish resident.

When first exposed to the idea that six million Jews were exterminated during the course of World War II, many of the students had a hard time grasping the number. The teachers suggested collecting something that could represent those killed in the Holocaust. With a bit of Internet research, the students discovered that the Norwegians wore paper clips during World War II in sympathy for Hitler's victims. The students concluded that it was their mission to collect six million paper clips.

At first, this seems impossible. Even with donations coming in from across the country–from politicians, from movie stars, from ordinary citizens–the project looks like it will take 10 years to reach its goal. Eventually, however, the students' undertaking begins to gain some notoriety. First, from a pair of German White House correspondents, Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, who come to the small town to document the students' story. (The students are amazed at how “normal” the couple look–after all, they've “never seen a German.”) In due time, the project becomes famous around the world. Letters, donations and tons of paper clips begin to pour into Whitwell's tiny post office. Ultimately, the students at Whitwell find themselves surrounded by more than 25 million paper clips.

As a film, Paper Clips is about much more than a simple class project, however. Every year, a new group of students comes into the school and, every year, the project continues. For nearly five years, filmmakers Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab follow Whitwell's eighth-grade students. Soon, Holocaust survivors from around the world are coming to this backwoods Southern town to share their tear-stained stories with the students. And it's not just a one-way history lesson either. (“What do a bunch of 12-year-old kids know?” would be another clear-cut example of prejudice.) In fact, these clear-eyed tweens have a lot to teach the world about compassion, tolerance and untainted innocence. In the end, the film (and the project that inspired it) is not even about the horrors of the Holocaust so much as the basic human capacity to sympathize with another, not-so-different human being. … Just goes to show you what education can accomplish when it thinks beyond school vouchers and standardized tests.

Paper Clips is not a particularly sophisticated documentary. Its shot-on-video style is simple and to the point. As a movie, you could say it lacks drama. But, thankfully, the filmmakers have felt no pressure to manufacture any. In a way, its artlessness is its strength. Throw in some zippy editing and a tension-filled story line, and it would have been badly out of sync with its humble subject. Berlin and Fab could have dug more deeply into the roots of bigotry, but they don't. We learn about the project, we learn about the positive effect it has had on the students, the community and the world at large–and that's basically all we need to know.

Paper Clips is as goodhearted and well-intentioned a human interest story as you could hope for, and it's probably one of the most touching, inspirational films you'll ever see. Trust me: We could ask for worse in these painfully divisive times. Just come armed with plenty of tissues if you're going to sit in on this emotional slice of feel-good filmmaking. You're going to need them.


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