The events depicted in Paper Clips
are by turns heartwarming, horrifying, amazing, and exactly the type of real-world improbability that the documentary form was created for. It’s also a modest little production, shot by filmmakers Berlin and Fab on digital video and edited on their home Avid system, that feels utterly out of place in the mainstream filmmaking market, a shock to the system on multiple levels that nevertheless is rarely anything but fascinating. It’s an only-in-America tale that encompasses the world, a history lesson, and a sociological examination all in one. In 1998, the kids of Whitwell Middle School in the tiny Tennessee hamlet of Whitwell (population 1,600) embarked on “the paper clip project,” a clever means of teaching, and more importantly, comprehending the incomprehensible horrors of the Holocaust. For these poor, white, rural children and their teachers, the figure of 6 million was simply too large to grasp as an abstract number. In an inspired bit of out-of-the-box thinking, they seized on the idea of collecting 6 million paper clips to symbolize the dead, and by the time the project wound down some six years later, Whitwell Middle School had overshot its goal by some 18 million. Why this most mundane of office supplies? As the Whitwell kids discover while researching the Holocaust on Google, the tiny metal objects were used by the Norwegians during World War II as a clandestine way to protest Nazi crimes without fear of reprisal. The paper clips, affixed to clothing, bore silent testament to the unfolding horrors, minuscule memorials so visually commonplace as to be utterly unremarkable to all but the wearers. Buoyed by clip donations from Toms ranging from Hanks to Bosley and snowballing media saturation in The Washington Post
and NBC News
, the students eventually acquire a World War II-era railroad boxcar to house their paper clips as a permanent memorial. Along the way, their entire community receives a wholly unexpected lesson in the history of intolerance. The fact that all this is happening in a rural American fundamentalist community is lost on no one. Both teachers and students remark on how their core belief systems have been affected by the Paper Clip Project, while Holocaust survivors and their children flood the local post office with symbolic donations and speaking appearances. The filmmakers wisely stay in the background and allow the people of Whitwell to tell their own story, although this simple, honest little film is occasionally marred by an emotionally manipulative music score straight out of Heartstring Tuggers 101. It’s a minor distraction, though, and one that is itself overwhelmed by the sheer, moving relevance of the events onscreen.