Great Clips

Tennessee schoolkids teach the world a lesson in an inspirational documentary

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Paper Clips

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The small Appalachian community of Whitwell, Tennessee, boasts two traffic lights and a population of 1,600, nearly all of them white and Christian. Lying just 100 miles from Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was founded, this now-defunct coal-mining town would seem an unlikely place to find a memorial to the six million Jews murdered by Nazis during World War II. But thanks to the efforts of middle school principal Linda Hooper, eighth-grade teachers David Smith and Sandra Roberts, and a group of dedicated students, this formerly nondescript, blink-and-you'll-miss-it town has become a worldwide beacon for the teaching of tolerance. Washington, D.C.-based documentary filmmakers Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin recorded Whitwell's extraordinary four-year journey in the low-key but inspirational film Paper Clips.

With only a handful of black and Hispanic families and no Jews or Catholics whatsoever, Whitwell was an unusually homogenous community. Principal Hooper felt it was important to expose the town's youngsters to more diversity -- at least the idea of diversity -- and to teach them what can happen when prejudice and intolerance go unchecked. As Southerners, the kids themselves were apt to be targets of prejudice if they ever left the comfortable confines of their hometown.

Hooper's initial idea was quite simple: Eighth-grade students would learn about the Holocaust. When the kids had trouble imagining a crime of such magnitude, they decided it would help if they could actually see six million of something. They needed something small and ended up settling on paper clips, partially because their research revealed that Norwegians had expressed their opposition to the Nazi roundup of Jews by wearing paper clips on their lapels. The kids wrote letters to friends and to celebrities -- movie stars, former presidents -- asking for paper clips. Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were among those who replied.

The project started with a bang, and soon the children had collected 150,000 paper clips. Then, nothing. Only when two D.C.-based German reporters, Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, heard about the project and visited Whitwell did the project really take off. The Washington Post and NBC News picked up the story, and soon the students were flooded with paper clips from all over the world. Along with the contributions came emotional letters from Holocaust survivors, those who had lost family members and just regular people who were touched and inspired by what the students were doing. A group of Holocaust survivors from New York journeyed to Whitwell to share their stories with the kids. The project was carried over from one year to the next, as each new incoming class of eighth graders picked up where the previous class had left off.

Eventually, 29 million paper clips were collected -- far more than originally conceived, and Hooper, Smith and Roberts began to think about creating some kind of permanent memorial to house the paper clips and to honor those who had died during the Holocaust. With the help of the Schroeders, they obtained an actual German railcar that had been used to transport victims of the Holocaust to the death camp at Auschwitz. Shipped from Germany, the boxcar became a kind of permanent museum, housing the paper clips, letters and photos. It was formally dedicated in November 2001, just two months after the tragedy of 9/11.

The documentary is, in many ways, predictably inspirational: The whole town pitches in, the schoolchildren bond with the Holocaust survivors who visit Whitwell, school officials reveal how the four-year project has changed them as people. But the fact that much of the story unfolds as anticipated shouldn't be construed as a criticism. The film remains emotionally powerful nonetheless.

The two characters who most stand out are Cassie Crabtree, an extraordinarily thoughtful and articulate eighth grader, and Principal Hooper, who initiated the project. Watching her, the viewer is struck by the power and influence that a single individual can exert -- and how one person can be a force for good. She's the real deal, a truly and profoundly inspiring figure.

The film features an absolutely beautiful score by Charlie Barnett that plays under almost every scene, even when people are speaking. It has the flavor of roots music and contributes greatly to both the narrative flow and emotional impact of the unfolding story. Alison Krauss sings a couple of traditional tunes, including the ethereal "Jubilee."

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