Wednesday, April 1, 2009


This is a tough one.

This one will require a box of tissues, extra hugs, and maybe a dose of something lighthearted on the telly before you all trot off to your rooms or to bed or to clean the kitchen. Maybe a "Friends" re-run or a little "VHI's One-Hit Wonders of the '80s" will do the trick.

Paper Clips is a stunningly powerful documentary about a group of 8th grade students in tiny Whitwell, TN, who embark on a journey to understand the Holocaust, but end up questioning so much more. Not only do the students emerge changed from the experience, but it touches an entire community as well.

Tiny Whitwell, TN (outside Chattanooga, and about 100 miles from where the KKK was founded) has a couple of stoplights, virtually zero Jews and Catholics, and might epitomize to some much of the southern United States: homogenized, predominantly fundamentalist Christian, and wrapped in a history of ethnic and racial discrimination and intolerance. (Whitwell is also about 45 miles from the Rhea County Courthouse, where, in 1925, a teacher was convicted for teaching evolution during the "Scopes Monkey Trial.”)

When eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School, back in 1998, began studying the Holocaust, a student planted the seed for the project, by saying, “What is six million? I've never seen six million.” The idea to collect six million of something (something related to the Holocaust, principal Linda Hooper insisted) led to the paper clip, which was "invented" (seems debatable, according to Wikipedia) by a Norwegian Jew; Norwegians wore them on their lapels during WWII as a protest against Hitler and his policies.

The Paper Clips Project got underway slowly, and after nearly stalling out late in 1999 (with 1.5 million clips donated), was saved by mainstream media coverage that was largely due to the efforts of a German couple living in the U.S., working as White House correspondents. Once the spotlight shined on Whitwell, the paper clips came by the millions. Well after the project met its completion, the paper clips would still trickle in, from all corners of the world. At last count, some over 30 million had been received.

There are many heroes in this story: the German couple, who came to the rescue several times and also answered an early question by students, “What are German people like? What do they look like? How could they have done this?”; the principal, assistant principal and teachers involved in the project who had incredible vision and patience; the entire community of Whitwell, who came to together in building a beautiful memorial; the Holocaust survivors who came to Whitwell to tell their stories; and of course the students, who worked tirelessly over a number of years to see the project through to the end.

Of course, the real heroes may be those who sent the paper clips; without the paper clips, this story would be something different. Not only did celebrities, regular people, and presidents (both Bushes and Clinton) send paperclips, but so did Germans, and of course, many, many Jewish people, both Holocaust survivors and relatives of the victims, all with heartbreaking stories.

The multiple award-winning Paper Clips should become a staple in middle school curriculum. Until that happens, a family viewing, with plenty of discussion, breaks for tissue replenishment, hugs, and sweet snacks for levity, will not only serve as a great history lesson and some quality family time, but it’ll bring the love.

I guarantee it.

(Note: This film is officially rated G, but I strongly recommend it for older kids who have a grasp of Holocaust history, and for parents who have more backbone than I, as I pretty much blubbered my way through the whole thing.)


  1. Looks like a pretty powerful film. I was welling up just watching the trailer. I've put it on my to-rent list from our local library.

  2. Hee, yeah, the trailer alone does the job! What a fine film, really.

    FilmFather, I just read your piece on DUMBO. Right on! I think some of those old Disney films are what contributed to our rather "anti Disney" stand today.


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