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Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

DVD Review: Paperclips

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to watch a delightful documentary entitled Paperclips. It chronicles the unique way that the middle schools students in the rural, south eastern Tennessee town of Whitwell decided to study about the Holocaust. In order to grasp the scope of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WW II, they took up the task of collecting one paper clip for every one of the 6 million Jews killed.

The project began in the 98-99 school year when a student wondered aloud to his friends about what the number "6 million" looked like. Thinking it would be a special way to remember the Holocaust, the students asked their teachers if it would be possible to try and collect 6 million of some object. They agreed, only if the object was something meaningful to the subject of the Holocaust. The students discovered that office paperclips were worn by Norwegian citizens as a protest against the Nazi occupation, so they decided to collect 6 million paper clips.

The project went slow at first, but after some time, it caught the attention of the national media and paperclip donations began pouring in from all over the world and soon the students had several million paperclips, way more than their stated goal of 6 million.

Once they collected the paperclips, the question was asked: "What do we do with them all?" Someone suggested finding a cattle railcar similar to the ones used to re-locate the Jews to Nazi concentration camps and build a memorial. Some European friends of the school were able to do one better. They located a genuine cattle railcar that was used for transporting Jews during WWII. The documentary then follows its delivery from Germany all the way to the U.S. and then to the Whitwell middle school where it is now used to house the millions of paperclips collected.

Running underneath the unfolding of the project is the theme of prejudice and intolerance, and it is moving to watch the kids, and even the teachers, come to terms with their own personal attitudes of prejudice. One precious example is the story a teacher tells of his prejudice towards blacks growing up in the rural south. He recalled with tears the slurs he would utter, even in the presence of his black friends. Participating in the paperclip project with his middle school students convicted him of his prideful attitude.

At the same time, however, the theme of personal intolerance understates the gravity of what happened in Nazi Germany. This is due in part, at least in my mind, because the paperclip participants seemed to equate individual, personal prejudices as being one and the same with the eugenic racism promoted by post-World War 1 Prussian Germans. The implication in the documentary was that the petty intolerances middle school children experience between social groups like the "jocks" and the "metal head" was the same type of intolerance motivating the Nazi's to exterminate Jews and other groups they saw as inferior. This conclusion of course understates the worldview driving Nazi racism and trivalizes the atrocities they committed.

Also, there was one portion of the film which really annoyed me. When the paperclip project gained the notice of the national media, several of the large East Coast newspapers like the Washington Post and the NY Times ran stories on the project. While chronicling the project's exposure on a national scale, the filmmakers interviewed a woman reporter from the Washington Post. She recounts how when she heard about the project she expressed incredulity, because rural TN is the place of fundamentalists Christians who gave us the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1925. At the very moment she mentions the fundamentalist Christians and the Scopes Trial, the film cuts away to stock footage of Klansmen burning crosses and other scenes of racism stereotypical of southern culture. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but the comparison undermines the theme of tolerance the filmmakers are wishing to get across.

Then one last constructive criticism I thought would have really added to the film. During the documenting of the railcar coming to Whitwell, the filmmakers follow it from Germany, to New York City and then its travel across the Eastern part of the country and into Tennessee. The railcar arrived in New York on September 9th, 2001. During its travel to Whitwell, the events of 9-11 happened. I thought it would had been a great addition to the discussion of intolerance and prejudice to have witnessed the students reaction to the terrorist attacks and listened to some discussion about intolerance in the context of what they were learning and the anticipation of the arriving railcar. Perhaps in future special editions of the film.

Overall, Paperclips is an enjoyable and inspiring film. I was delighted this was a rural, southern middle school who took up this project for the world to see. When it started, none of these kids had even met a Jew, but it is clear that their experience with collecting millions of paperclips had a positive impact upon their view of the world.

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