Thursday, February 24, 2005

Paper Clips

Paper Clips (Directors: Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab)

This documentary is both credited directors' first film. The limited-release date of this was September 8, so it's a 2004 film.

This is sort of a perfect film for the L & N Line, since the documentary subject comes out of Whitwell, TN, where a middle school undertook a project to understand the Holocaust better. One of the many symbolic endeavors in this project was to collect 6 million paper clips to show the enormity of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Even from Nashville, Whitwell seems like another land, a foreign place, a town some 120 miles (southeast) away (around 37 miles northwest of Chattanooga--depending on how you Mapquest such things--the film says 24, I believe). It is the stereotypical southern town with low population, poverty, and thick southern accents. That's why their commitment to this project, from 1998-2001, becomes so special. It is the very essence of what they are trying to learn--the destruction of stereotypes. This gesture isn't coming from liberal communities in the Northeast or metropolitan Los Angeles, but from what is now being deridingly described as "red-state" country.

The film covers the school's initially slow paper clip collection, to the explosion brought on by journalists Dagmar and Peter Schroeder, when ultimately 24 million paper clips (and when everything died down, 29 million) were collected from all sorts of places, to the Holocaust survivors who came to share their testimony, to the acquiring of an actual boxcar that ported Jews to concentration camps ultimately dressed into a memorial.

Not to be a bastard about all this, but the film, and that's what we're discussing here, not the people involved with such a tremendous project because they are to be given enormous kudos and accolades for their job, has the same problems Hotel Rwanda has. The Holocaust serves as the backdrop for another story, and, I think, does a disservice to the reason for all of this. For example, while Holocaust survivors share their stories, voiceover from people involved with the project will come in as an extremely unwelcome interruption. You'll hear Holocaust survivor "A" say, "I went to Auschwitz..." before voiceover comes in and someone says (and I'm totally paraphrasing here), "I was amazed, these people, what they went through. It was an amazing experience for me, and it taught me some things, and I can't believe all this, and I'm a better person." In other words, the movie becomes solely about what the project people went through, and should this be my first introduction into Holocaust history, I'd be scratching my head about why this project was necessary. Paper Clips assumes that you know all the horrors of Hitler's regime.

Yes, indeed, we get a glimpse, we get a story here and there--the most powerful being one of a man talking about his brother, while imprisoned, asking where he is, and getting a simple point in the direction of some smoke coming out of a chimney--cruelly introducing this man into the concept of crematoriums. As a person watching the film, I could only hope for more such stories, but this is not where the film takes you. It's one of those films that seems critically bulletproof--because to say something bad about the film suggests that you are also saying something bad about the subject matter. I say, yes, include these personal testimonials of Whitwell's people, but give us more survivors, people personally touched by the Holocaust.

Overall, it's worth watching just for the project itself, and seeing how it grew into a national story.


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