Only the most churlish bastard would be unmoved by Paper Clips, a feel-good documentary about rural Tennessee middle-school students who collected millions of paper clips in remembrance of Holocaust victims. What kind of lout could not be inspired by a poor, busted-out coal-mining communitynestled between the birthplace of the KKK and the town that held the Scopes monkey trialtransforming itself into a beacon of tolerance and cultural sensitivity? Aware that they have the audience's sympathies well in hand, directors Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin needle and prod for every tear, using soundbites, testimonials, and music cues like a bully's fists on a playground. What might have been a touching 15-minute human-interest story instead turns into a long infomercial that keeps hawking the same sentiments over and over again.
In a backwater town of uniform complexion like Whitwell, Tennessee (pop. 1660), teaching tolerance to students who know little diversity is a noble endeavor, but the real genius of the Holocaust project is that it gave purpose to mindless middle-school busywork. After initially struggling to collect a paper clip for each of the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis, the project got a boost from a pair of German journalists who coaxed the Washington Post into writing a story, which in turn led to a piece on NBC Nightly News. Soon enough, the students were counting and sorting more than four times the paper clips they needed, many of which came accompanied by moving letters from world leaders, celebrities (Tom Bosley!), and Holocaust survivors. As a final touch, they arrange for an authentic German boxcar to serve as a lasting memorial to their endeavor and a symbolic resting place for the souls each clip represents.
Paper Clips pays lip service to the dangers of prejudice and stereotyping, which makes sense given the insularity of the area and the perception outsiders have of the Deep South. But for all the talk about the life-changing lessons of the Holocaust, Fab and Berlin never bother to inquire about the generations that fostered a less enlightened view of humanity, other than a teacher who admits to a few casual slurs in his youth. Clearly, he overcame some deeply ingrained naivete, if not outright bigotry, by participating in the project, but the film doesn't explore the roots behind that way of thinking. The story they get may be heartfelt and inspiring, but all that powerful sentiment doesn't make it any more complete.