It was a middle school in tiny Whitwell, Tenn., that set out to collect 6 million paper clips to commemorate the 6 million Jews killed during the Nazi holocaust. The irony of such an act coming from the rural South is not lost on Whitwellians in "Paper Clips," the documentary about their project.
One school administrator admits his own father is quick with a racist remark, and he notes that Southerners are easily stereotyped and discriminated against, too. The school's principal, a tireless, indefatigable old woman named Linda Hooper, says Whitwell (population 1,600) has no Jews, no Catholics, and only a handful of blacks and Hispanics. The project is extraordinary anyway, but particularly considering it's being spearheaded by a school of white Protestant redneck children. (I use the term "redneck" affectionately, at least as far as you know.)
The paper clip project, which spanned the years 1998-2003, honors lives and changes the lives of the honorers. The film, directed by Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, neither of whom has any other previous credits, is constructed simply, even amateurishly, but the power of what's being done comes through loud and clear. It is a case of the material being far better than the movie.
Through footage shot over the years of the project, and with some minor bits apparently re-enacted for the camera, we see the project spring to life in the 8th-grade language arts class. Student research discovered that the paper clip was invented in Norway (who knew?), and that during World War II, Norwegians would wear paper clips on their lapels as a silent protest against Hitler. And thus was the perfect item found to be collected in large numbers, to signify the lives lost in the concentration camps.
Letters are sent to news organizations and to famous people, asking them to contribute paper clips to help them reach their goal of 6 million. The going is slow at first, but encouraging. Celebrities contribute clips, and businesses send masses of them. But still, the pile has reached only 100,000 when the Washington Post and "NBC Nightly News" pick up the story -- and from there, it snowballs.
In a matter of months, the school has collected 24 million paper clips (the number would eventually grow to 29 million) and 25,000 pieces of mail from all over the globe. Some people send huge boxes of paper clips bought in bulk; others send just a few, to represent specific people lost in the Holocaust, with accompanying letters to tell their stories. Each successive year of 8th-grade language arts students pick up where the last class left off, collecting and cataloguing all the contributions.
The project takes on a life of its own after a while. A group of Holocaust survivors comes to give first-hand accounts to the school and the town. A husband-and-wife journalist team from Germany become frequent guests, eventually setting out to find a German railroad car to serve as permanent repository for the paper clips and to double as a memorial and museum.
There is some scripted narration in the film, voiced by the participants and sounding wholly unnatural, that detracts from the movie's otherwise earnest, trustworthy nature. But if the technique is sometimes regrettable, the basic story is unassailably good. It's hard not to be moved by the survivors' stories, by the students' reactions, by the clear way that everyone's lives are changed for the better by the paper clip project.
The 2-disc set is packaged in a regular-width DVD case with Disc 2 in the usual spot and Disc 1 on a platter that swings out on top of it. Disc 1 has the film and the directors' commentary; Disc 2 has all of the extras. I suspect everything could have fit on one disc if they'd wanted it to, but what do I know?
There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles on the film, but not on the extras. There are no alternate language tracks.
VIDEO: Shot on digital video, the film looks crisp and bright in its DVD presentation. The original widescreen (1.85:1) format is preserved, but it's non-anamorphic.
AUDIO: It's a standard digital stereo mix, and it sounds fine for our purposes.
The directors' commentary by Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin is average. They're both silent for long stretches at a time, but when they do speak, what they say is generally insightful about the process of making the film.
On Disc 2, there are five deleted and extended scenes. First is "A Sabbath Lesson at Ground Zero," in which some of the Tennessee kids share a shabbat dinner with a Jewish family and address a Jewish group in New York.
In "Whitwell Churches: 'It Doesn't Matter Which One You Belong To,'" Church organist Isabelle Condra talks about Whitwell's spiritual life, and how the lack of Jewish people in the community doesn't mean Whitwell won't be kind hosts when the Holocaust survivors come to visit. The scene shows the visitors enjoying a friendly dinner with a Methodist church group, as referenced in the film.
"Whitwell Post Office: 'Something's Goin' On Over Here!'" talks about the paper clip project from the local post office's perspective. Basically, it was a lot of extra work, but they were cool about it. (After a while, there was so much that someone from the school had to come down and pick it up rather than the postman delivering it.)
"The Railcar's Journey to Whitwell" gives more details -- 14 minutes' worth -- on that element of the story, which the film itself had to tell rather quickly.
"Dedication of the Children's Holocaust Memorial" is 25 minutes of footage from that event, which again had to be telescoped into a couple minutes in the film. As poignant and sweet as the film is, this stirring footage might top it.
There are also interviews with Holocaust survivors Bernard Igielski and Rachel Gleitman, and additional interview footage with various Whitwell figures.
All of the above are well worth watching. They add a great deal of understanding and depth to the story, helping a viewer feel even closer to what the people of Whitwell experienced.
The paper clip project was surely a better project than this movie is able to capture; the film is earnest and competent, but not extraordinarily graceful. Nonetheless, the love and good will of the project come through loud and clear. This DVD presentation of it is above average, thanks to that bonus footage that adds so much more to the experience.
(Note: Most of the "movie review" portion of this article comes from the review I wrote when the movie was released theatrically. I have re-watched the film in the course of reviewing the DVD, however.)