Screens Attachment disorder

'Paper Clips' makes American triumphalism the moral of the Holocaust

Students at an elementary school in Whitwell, Tennessee - birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and home to the school board that fired John T. Scopes for teaching evolution - collected more than 29 million paper clips in a project designed to make the tragedy of the Holocaust tangible.

Almost 3,000 Americans were killed on September 11, 2001, and the nation still struggles to grasp the enormity of the crime. But the Nazi genocide managed to claim more victims than the combined populations of San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. When a student in Tennessee is told how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, he asks: "What is 6 million? I've never seen that before."

Paper Clips documents a project to make the inconceivable palpable. In 1998, Linda Hooper, principal of the middle school in Whitwell, Tennessee, devised a plan "to teach our children not everybody is white and Protestant." However, almost everybody in Whitwell, population 1,600, is; Hooper's school, whose student body included only five African Americans and one Latino, lacked Jews, Catholics, and Asians. She concluded that understanding the Holocaust would provide her students with a vital lesson in diversity and tolerance. Inspired by Norwegians who wore paper clips to mark their solidarity with the Jews and resistance to the Nazis, Whitwell Middle School began assembling a paper clip for every victim of the Holocaust. Six million ceased to be an abstraction.

The students in fact ended up collecting and counting more than 29 million paper clips. They also acquired an authentic German boxcar that had been used to transport Jews to the camps. A group of Holocaust survivors traveled to Tennessee from New York and told their harrowing stories from the pulpit of the town's First United Methodist Church. An army veteran who helped liberate Mauthausen wrote to the Whitwell youngsters, as did Tom Hanks, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, and other celebrities, as well as thousands of others moved by Whitwell's project. "We'll never look at a paper clip the same way again," says one student. Neither will most viewers of this film.

Yet Paper Clips attaches itself to its subject awkwardly. Whitwell is located in the neighborhood where the Ku Klux Klan was founded and John T. Scopes was fired for teaching evolution. Teaching about the dangers of bigotry is important, and it is endearing and inspiring to see the Whitwell students hug elderly Jewish visitors who come bearing tales of atrocity. But, accompanied by a gentle, bluegrass-inflected score, this film tries too hard to make lemons into lemon meringue - baked with a surfeit of saccharine. For all its concern for the murdered millions, Paper Clips lacks a genuine sense of evil. The German boxcar happens to be traveling from the port of Baltimore to Whitwell on September 11, 2001, but, except to note the date, directors Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab seem oblivious to the persistence of malevolence. "I am so glad to live in the United States of America," declares Hooper at ceremonies to mark the car's arrival in placid Tennessee, appropriating European genocide for a smarmy Stars-and-Stripes triumphalism.

Paper Clips

Dir. Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab; writ. Fab (G)
Whitwell did well to teach its children that never again must an entire people be targeted for annihilation, and the film does well to dispel stereotypes about Smoky Mountain yahoos. But it revels in the pious revelation that none of us is a Nazi. "You are testament that a new age has dawned," a Holocaust survivor tells the children of Whitwell, "a new age of kindness." In the age of Darfur, Baghdad, and Chechnya, a film that concludes on that cheerful note is seriously out of focus.

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