Thursday, November 25, 2004

“Paper Clips,” opening today at the Avalon and Loew’s Shirlington, is a disarming documentary feature about the benevolent ramifications of an elective course on Holocaust history at a middle school in Whitwell, Tenn.

The movie was produced by a McLean-based company, the Johnson Group. The principal filmmakers, Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin, had been attracted by a Washington Post story Dita Smith prepared for Passover in 2000. That account of the Whitwell class attracted the attention of NBC’s “Nightly News.”

These spotlights combined to flood the school with contributions of the small item that students had begun to solicit and collect as an emblem of the millions slaughtered during the Holocaust: paper clips.

It was at this point that the filmmakers also became aware of the Whitwell project. They traveled south to meet some of the faculty members and students actively involved; they secured permission to document the effort, catching up with some of the history and covering developments that eventually resulted in an oddly incongruous but evocative memorial on school grounds: a German rail car believed to have ferried victims to concentration and death camps during the Hitler regime.

The search for this haunted repository was conducted by a pair of German journalists, Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, correspondents residing in Washington for many years.

They visited the school upon learning of the project and vowed that it should have a German volunteer dimension. The film crew joins them as a “welcoming committee” when the car arrives at the port of Baltimore on Sept. 9, 2001. It was en route to Chattanooga by rail on September 11.

The dedication of the memorial site was held two months later. By that time the school was storing about 29 million paper clips, approximately 22 metric tons. It was decided that the exhibits would be limited to about 11 million, representing Jews and others executed in the death camps.

Three faculty members were involved from the start: principal Linda Hooper, social studies teacher David Smith and language arts teacher Sandra Roberts. The project began as a well-meaning initiative after Mr. Smith attended a teachers’ conference and returned with the thought that Holocaust study could prove a useful corrective to small-town insularity and a reinforcement for ideals of “tolerance and diversity.”

Educators in Whitwell, a town of about 1,600 in the southeastern section of Tennessee, seem to be very conscious of homogeneity. Linda Hooper observes that the school population is almost exclusively white and Protestant. Dita Smith called attention to the proximity of Dayton, Tenn., the site of the Scopes trial, and Pulaski County, a vintage hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan, in her Post story.

In fact, the early sequences have an alarming note of apologetic humility and overcompensation. Sanctimony, however, is averted. The paper clip campaign gives the project a distinctive focus. Students learn that Norwegians were known to wear paper clips as a symbol of solidarity with Jews during the Nazi occupation. These tiny objects do suffice as reminders of the magnitude of the human loss.

A decisive transformation occurs when a Holocaust survivor group from New York visits the school after learning about the project. When these elderly witnesses to the Holocaust bond with the earnest students, teachers and parents of the Whitwell school, the movie and the project itself acquire an emotional gravity and dignity that sustain the rest of the chronicle.


TITLE: “Paper Clips”

RATING: G (adult subject matter, involving aspects of Holocaust history, but suitable for younger viewers)

CREDITS: Directed by Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab. Written by Mr. Fab. Cinematography by Michael Marton. Sound Recording by Robert Sullivan. Editing by Julia Dixon Eddy. Music by Charlie Barnett

RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes



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