Welcome to Whitwell, Tenn., where everyone is white and loves God, America and chicken-fried-steak. The Ku Klux Klan was founded not far from here. Once you cross Whitwell’s borders, you’ll never look at a paper clip the same again. Honestly. And, no, this is not a version of Deliverance involving office supplies. It’s stranger than that.
Tucked into the pastoral landscape of Whitwell is a little middle school filled with impoverished children who, in the late ’90s, embarked on a great project that sucked in the entire community. So great they won global recognition, created an international memorial and provided closure for hundreds of Holocaust survivors. Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin directed a documentary on the project in 2001. They did such a seamless and crisp job of presenting the tale that Hollywood’s Weinstein brothers, who run Miramax, were moved to buy the film and put it on the silver screen.
You have to see this film for yourself. I can’t tell you much about it or you’ll hate it and refuse to go. I loathed the thought of watching what sounded like a clichéd, touchy-feely, low-budget, tender-hearted hour-and-a-half dedicated to human sins that have been explored a million times before. But this isn’t like that. I cried. I laughed. Especially at the end when a German journalist tells the crowd of students that one day they’ll probably become losers, and when that happens, they should think back to the great accomplishment of their project.
Here’s the basic premise: A racist teacher and a principal who wants to teach her homogenous Protestant student body about diversity embark on a project to get eighth-graders to study the Holocaust. When the students learn 6 million Jews were killed, a kid asks, “What’s 6 million? I can’t picture it.” They decide to collect a paper clip to represent each person killed in the German genocide — the number grows to 11 million so the kids can commemorate the homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped persons and others killed.
Sounds cheesy, right? Well, it’s not. It’s awesome. The project is so unique it opens a portal to the heart of the Holocaust issue — the kids get 25,000 letters from around the world telling stories of families and victims and feelings; each letter is preserved in a logged binder. Nearly 30 million paperclips arrive after the international media pick up the story.
Fascinating is watching New York Holocaust survivors visiting the little Southern Appalachian school, learning that 6,500 paper clips were donated to the project to represent each Jewish person living in Tennessee.
Understated is the strange relationship between Tennesseans who are so separated from the evil of the Holocaust they are devastated by it, anew; while at the same time their region is thick with history of murderous, terror-inspiring and discriminatory acts against African-Americans, a history that continues to today. While the white-black vs. German-Jew issue isn’t discussed much in the film, the teacher who’s a leader of the project admits he always used racial epithets, as taught by his father, even in front of his black college roommate and friend. But now, after learning about the Holocaust and the evil and danger of stereotypes, the teacher cries when saying that he’d never again use such language, and that it would be the worst thing in the world if his sons thought of him as a racist.
All in all, this is a touching, beautiful, educational, remarkable film, well-executed. It’ll spark all kinds of conversation. The point of the story: the evil of stereotypes, discrimination and hatred. Detroit could take a lesson from these kids, teachers, adults and elders. We all could.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Lisa M. Collins writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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