Paper Clips

Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab's compassionate chronicle of a small-town school's efforts to broaden its childrens' horizons began with a question: How do you teach tolerance and diversity in a setting so racially, religiously and economically homogenous that its high-school graduates regularly retreat from out-of-town colleges, rattled by sudden immersion in...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab's compassionate chronicle of a small-town school's efforts to broaden its childrens' horizons began with a question: How do you teach tolerance and diversity in a setting so racially, religiously and economically homogenous that its high-school graduates regularly retreat from out-of-town colleges, rattled by sudden immersion in a sea of different nationalities and religions? Whitwell Middle School principal Linda Hooper began looking for an answer in 1998, after history teacher David Smith returned from an enrichment-programs workshop eager to educate their eighth graders about the bitter consequences of bigotry. A small, depressed Tennessee town in the Sequatchie River Valley, uncomfortably close to Pulaski and Dayton — respectively the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and the site of high-school biology teacher John T. Scopes' 1925 trial for teaching Darwin's evolutionary theories — Whitwell was and is overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and poor. Smith and English teacher Sandra Roberts began by devising a Holocaust curriculum, and quickly came up against their first hurdle. Raised in a town of 1600, the kids couldn't begin to wrap their minds around the enormity of a number like 6,000,000. The teachers suggested collecting six million of something small and, after some research, the students decided on paper clips, which were worn by WWII-era Norwegians as a sign of solidarity with persecuted Jews. The students created a website and wrote to politicians, celebrities and sports teams explaining the assignment and asking for donations of paper clips. The paper clips came with letters, many of them heart-wrenchingly personal. Washington-based educator Lena Gitter, who fled Austria in 1938, alerted her journalist friends Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand; their articles in the Washington Post and other publications became a book and produced a flood of responses just as the project's momentum seemed to be foundering. Ultimately, thousands of letters and packages from 19 countries and 49 states poured into Whitwell, including an old suitcase filled with paper-clipped messages of apology to Anne Frank written by German students. Holocaust survivors came to share their experiences, and the Schroeders helped locate and buy a German boxcar, which was installed on the Middle School grounds as a permanent home for the tangible fruits of the paper-clip project. Inspirational without being sentimental or condescending, Fab and Berlin's film is rough around the edges but rock-solid in its sense of place and its depiction of real people overreaching their apparent limitations.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: G
  • Review: Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab's compassionate chronicle of a small-town school's efforts to broaden its childrens' horizons began with a question: How do you teach tolerance and diversity in a setting so racially, religiously and economically homogenous that i… (more)

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