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Paper Clips   B

Miramax Films / The Johnson Group

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: G
Directors: Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab
Writer: Joe Fab
Cast: Linda Hooper, Sandra Roberts, Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, Peter Schroeder, David Smith, Tom Bosley.

Review by Sean O'Connell

As an interactive social-studies lesson, Paper Clips is genius. Students attending Whitwell High in rural Tennessee form a Holocaust discussion group to better understand the documented atrocities and educate the body of predominantly Caucasian students on diversity and tolerance. Textbooks recount the millions of people who lost their lives, though one student asks with all honesty, "How many is six million?"

His simple question triggers a community-altering lesson that matches Southern hospitality with international history. Teachers and students collectively devise an exercise meant to help visualize the number of Holocaust victims. They set out to collect one paper clip for every life lost. A goal is set for 6 million. The class ends up collecting almost four times as much.

The paper-clip initiative receives assistance from Whitwell's citizens and beyond. Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand and Peter Schroeder, two Holocaust survivors, learn of the project and travel to Whitwell to contribute. Their efforts help secure an actual German rail car used to transport Jewish prisoners to Nazi concentration camps. The students commit to turning the once-hideous vehicle into a memorial and a beacon of hope for Whitwell visitors.

As a documentary, Paper Clips creates an uplifting spirit from authentic Holocaust recollections and the occasional bit of staged footage. The project's seeds sprout from admirable honesty. Whitwell's teenagers boldly admit their inherent flaw while outwardly acknowledging one of their town's shortcomings. Most children in Whitwell are born into ignorance, and the community's leaders recognize the town's regrettable lack of diversity. Their desire to learn from their geographic situation makes the paper-clip project all the more inspiring.

Filmmakers Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab convey the enormity of the project while documenting the impact it has on the high-school staff's daily lives. They join the group in midstream -- after the Holocaust team was formed but before the rail car arrives -- so they occasionally include staged footage that comes across as forced and stiff. One student mentions how they've received letters and paper clips from concerned celebrities, so Berlin and Fab unnecessarily shoot Happy Days veteran Tom Bosley at home reading his letter to the school.

These segments shot in hindsight pale in comparison to the actual, effective, and emotional recollections of survivors who come to Whitwell to share their past with the school. Personal tales of hardship and pain pull the students beyond the lesson, proving how generations can properly continue to learn lessons about the Holocaust that might not be found in a book.

Review published 04.27.2005.

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