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Paper Clips

(2004) ** 1/2 G
82 min. Miramax Films. Directors: Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab. Cast: Linda Hooper, David Smith, Sandra Roberts, Peter Schroeder, Dagmar Schindel-Hildebrand.

Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab's documentary Paper Clips tells a sort of Dateline NBC tale of an ongoing educational project in a two-traffic-light town, a so-called "depressed community" in Tennessee. The Whitwell Middle School became self-conscious about its lack of diversity and decided to launch a project about an alien cultural experience. The educators chose the Holocaust, and ever since, the program has grown in effectiveness and stature.

The filmmakers capture a pivotal time in the program. After one child confessed having no concept of how much the number six million represented, another suggested collecting six million paper clips. Paper clips, it turns out, were both a Norwegian invention and their symbol for resistance against the Nazis. Needless to say, the effort eventually takes off, leading the teachers and students to bigger and better efforts: bringing in Holocaust survivors to speak and finally claiming their own Holocaust memento as the centerpiece of an on-site Holocaust memorial.

The documentary has powerful moments, mostly courtesy of the Holocaust survivors, but the interviews and narration sound overly coached, and even at a slim 82 minutes, the film is given to repetitive overstatement and pedagogical hyperbole. Only a couple of the kids barely become characters in the documentary narrative; we mostly get teachers who the filmmakers have sat down to pat themselves on the back. Certainly, they deserve credit for breaking out of their comfort zone, learning from their own students, and enlightening a whole community (though one hopes that elsewhere in the school, African-American history, Latino literature, and the like are also beginning to get their due).

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