It’s always late at night, when I can’t sleep, but can’t work either, that I ‘discover’ the best things. Last night, in my search for something to watch that would also help me fall asleep I found the documentary, Paper Clips. Over an hour later, eyes swollen and nose stuffy from all of the tears, I began to fall asleep just as the sun was coming up; my perspective changed just a bit for the better.
Paper Clips is the story of what came to be when two teachers and their principal set out to teach tolerance to their Whitwell Middle School students in 1998 in Whitwell, TN (pop. 1600). What better way to learn about tolerance, than to study the atrocities of the Holocaust. As they set out to learn, the read The Diary of Anne Frank and did internet research, during which they discovered that Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels in silent solidarity with those who were being victimized, which according to the Illinois Holocaust Museum is a misconception, so they decide to begin collecting paper clips as a tribute to the six million Jewish people who died in the Holocaust.
The project starts out a little slow, but soon, after some media attention, they collect 29 million paper clips as people sent them in to represent the victims in their own families. The project continues with the next middle school class. They have survivors visit their small town to tell their stories, and eventually as they create a truly beautiful memorial where the paper clips–total of 11 million to represent the 6 million Jews plus 5 million gays, mentally challenged, and gypsy victims–will be displayed the entire Whitwell community becomes involved in the project.
I don’t want to spoil the beauty of what transpires by telling it here, you’ll have to watch. I will only share how it affected me. This documentary wasn’t complicated, artsy, or any of those fancy things that help films win awards. It simply tells the story of how children learned and how adults were changed in the process.
But it’s not just about the people of Whitwell, it’s about the viewer too. You go into it thinking (at least I did), “Wow, small southern town folks are bound to have some prejudices,” and they don’t deny that it’s true, but they also teach the viewer that maybe, just maybe, your perception of them is built on prejudices too.
They remind you that stereotypes are universal and that we are all responsible for looking past our own belief system about groups of people to see every one as individuals. I defy you to leave this film without feeling just a little bit changed. I know I did.
It’s currently available on Netflix for streaming.