With its strong and heartwarming true story, “Paper Clips” gets its point across. But it has to work against its own syrupy delivery to succeed.
This documentary travels to Whitwell, Tenn., population 1,600, for a reflection of the Holocaust and World War II. In 1998, the students of Whitwell Middle School were looking for a project on tolerance, the better to introduce isolated young people to the rest of the world. The school had no Jewish or Catholic kids, and only five black students.
Teachers felt that one way of apprehending the reality of six million Jewish lives lost would be to make the number concrete. Students discovered that the paper clip was a symbol of resistance in Norway during WWII, and thought that collecting and displaying six million paper clips would be a forceful symbol of the Nazi genocide.
This simple idea, which got off to a relatively slow start, eventually became an international phenomenon. After news reports publicized the students’ call for paper clips, a steady stream of packages from strangers soon became a torrent.
“Paper Clips” charts this process, and also documents a visit to the town from a group of Holocaust survivors. When these elderly folks talk to the young southern kids about the realities of bigotry and genocide, the sense of hands reaching across generations is powerful.
The letters that accompanied the paper clips were often from people who had a personal connection to the Holocaust. In one case, the filmmakers tracked down the letter-writer, a man who had helped liberate the concentration camp at Linz, Austria. He recalls a haunting incident from that disturbing experience.
This and many other sections of “Paper Clips” are truly eye-watering. The Whitwell kids are a great story, and it’s too bad directors Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin couldn’t resist the temptation to schmaltz it up.
Most irritatingly, they smother the movie in Charlie Barnett’s heavy musical score. Also, there are interviews with the staff of the middle school that sound awfully rehearsed, if not scripted, especially when they’re describing events that happened before the filmmakers arrived on the scene.
At times the movie’s style is as forced as a fast-food commercial. I am sure the filmmakers are sincere in getting the message out about the Holocaust, but the subject does not need to be treated as a fast-food commercial, and the overall effect borders on the offensive.
“Paper Clips” documents a school’s tolerance project.