Whitwell, Tenn., is a tiny, mostly white Christian community. In 1998, middle-school assistant principal, history teacher and football coach David Smith suggested to principal Linda Hooper that they use the Holocaust as part of a program to teach tolerance to students. Of the 425 students, all but six were white. "This area isn't known for tolerance," Smith said. He chose the Holocaust because "There are no Jews here. These kids don't know any Germans. It was easier to teach them tolerance by teaching them about people they don't know anything about." Smith and fellow teacher Sandra Roberts put together the program.
Told of the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims, one student confessed that the number was too large for him to conceive. That admission soon led to a school project with the students collecting paperclips - one for each of the 6 million victims. It could have been any small common object, really, though the students discovered that in Norway, where the paper clip was invented, citizens of the day surreptitiously expressed their opposition to the Nazis by wearing paper clips in their lapels.
The students wrote letters requesting paper clips to political leaders, business people, celebrities; anyone they could think of. The project soon began drawing outside attention, and a number of notable visitors, including death camp survivors who came to see the project and tell their tales.
The documentary is suitably inspirational, but it also seems quite pleased with itself. Look closely - are the students getting the message or do they get lost in all the publicity? Are they really committed to the multi-year project, or are they just hoping to get on TV?
Please understand, I have no doubt that virtually every student exposed to the project learned something. I'm also sure they were moved by what happened to 6 million - My God! - Jews. But I also remember being a high school student and I remember that people of that age, asked their feelings about anything, will generally respond either by giving you a blank expression or parroting what they believe you want to hear. Add TV and movie cameras to the mix and the chances of getting a genuine response grow even smaller.
What we get is a documentary with a thuggish soundtrack that covers only the basics. The death camp survivors receive about 10 minutes of screen time, with the rest going to chatty teachers and students saying just the right thing while other students look on blankly.
Bottom line? Paper Clips isn't primarily about 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it's about plucky American teachers and students with the ingenuity to create an attention-getting project about 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I recommend the movie; it stirred my emotions and reminded me of the Holocaust while it also, probably by accident, points out that in modern America, everybody deserves a documentary, even the people honoring the people the story is really about.