Whitwell, Tenn., is like every small town you've ever driven through on the way to some place bigger. Storefronts, trailer parks, two lonely traffic lights swinging in the sun. Well-attended church potluck suppers and signs proclaiming Tiger pride. Population somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000. Population somewhere in the neighborhood of extreme homogeneity.
Whitwell's singularity, it turns out, derives not from anything readily apparent from the window of a speeding car. Staring out at the town's pastoral particulars and familiar rural sights, who could guess what was happening at Whitwell Middle School?
Screened this week at Loyola University as part of the eighth annual New Orleans Jewish Film Festival, the 2004 Miramax documentary Paper Clips tells the story of Linda Hooper, a small-town middle school principal who simply wanted more for the children under her care. In the late 1990s, she looked around and realized that, for the most part, all of these kids were alike -- meaning mainly white and Protestant. And the no-nonsense, white-haired educator decided that diversity was her destiny.
Just coming to that conclusion makes Hooper and her team of teachers worthy of a documentarian's notice. A former mining town slowly sliding into poverty, Whitwell lies in Tennessee's Sequatchie Valley, not very far, the documentary notes, from the site of the Scopes monkey trial and the birthplace of the Klan. In a cloistered community where "different" is not necessarily seen as "better" -- and aren't there hundreds just like that in every corner of our globe? -- it would have been easy for the school to settle into sameness. But Hooper took an extraordinary step: She admitted she didn't know everything about everything. Assistant principal David Smith was packed off to a diversity workshop and soon returned talking about teaching his eighth-grade students about the Holocaust. The topic satisfied on two levels; first, it would give the school an opportunity to explore the totally foreign cultures of Judaism and mid-20th century Europe, and second, it was the perfect example of the monstrous consequences of rampant intolerance.
So Hooper, Smith and teacher Sandy Roberts set out to educate themselves and their students at the same time. When one student admitted difficulty imagining the magnitude of the Holocaust because he had never seen 6 million of anything, Hooper said let's find something to collect that will make real and tangible the 6 million Jewish souls lost. The students selected the paper clip, which the Norwegians had worn on their lapels during World War II as a symbol of their resistance to Hitler and his anti-Jewish campaign.
Directors Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab follow the story of the students' paper clip project, which began with solicitation letters to a few celebrities and surrounding schools and wound up garnering national and international attention. Much of the film focuses on the varied responses to their request -- Jewish actor Tom Bosley sends one paper clip and a very personal letter; German school children send a suitcase filled with paper clips attached to their letters to Anne Frank; German journalists Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand and Peter Schroeder write about the project and then find themselves a part of it, procuring a Nazi-era railcar for the school, the ultimate repository for 11 million paper clips chosen to represent those from all walks of life who died in concentration camps.
The film is simply shot; there is, in fact, next to no cinematic technique involved. But what Paper Clips might lack in art, it more than makes up for in heart. There is something incredibly moving about seeing assistant principal Smith waking up to the realities of prejudices and stereotypes in his own life at the very same moment that he is working to eradicate them in the lives of his students and two small sons. As the project takes on a life of its own so, too, does the film, overflowing with the stunning stories of survivors and families of survivors who find themselves drawn into Whitwell's embrace.
Some critics have cynically labeled Paper Clips as too self-satisfied, focusing too exclusively on the wonder of Whitwell. But the documentary's main players -- teachers, students, parents -- humbly marvel at their little miracle sprung from mundanity. Paper Clips is the story of a community closed off by geography and by temperament that courageously pushed at its horizons, a testament to the power of an uncomplicated idea whose time, for whatever reason, seems to have come. It makes for nothing less than extraordinary viewing.
Why? Because, like each paper clip collected and committed to the Tennessee town's Holocaust memorial, this simple, sweet documentary honors something innocent, something cherished, something we must never forget.
- The magic of the mundane: Paper Clips is a documentary as simple as the stunning story it tells.