It is something all human beings deal with; some more than others. It is the nauseating churning of your stomach when you lie to a friend or parent. It is the shameful heat felt inching up your face when you know you’ve made a mistake.
Or it is the indescribably painful physical repercussion of remaining silent, paralyzed by hatred and fear, in the face of evil.
For 30 eighth graders at Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tenn., guilt never stood a chance against the power of love.
The 2004 documentary, “Paper Clips,” tells the inspiring and uplifting tale of a middle school’s efforts to “help students open their eyes to the diversity of the world beyond their insulated valley” and combat the debilitating effects of racial hatred.
Cal Poly’s Jewish club, Hillel, sponsored a free showing of the movie last week in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Week and the club’s campaign against mass genocide entitled, “Never Again, Never Forget.”
The movie focuses on one of the world’s darkest hours, the Holocaust, through the eyes of a small Southern coal-mining town in Tennessee. With the help of Miramax Pictures and showbiz moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the movie turns a down-home effort at diversifying and educating a group of young people into one simple but powerful idea: “Collecting one paper clip for every life that was lost; the feelings that connect us are greater than those that divide us.”
According to the movie’s Web site, www.paperclipsmovie.com, “Their plan was simple, but profound. The amazing result – a memorial railcar filled with 11 million paper clips (representing 6 million Jews and 5 million gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of the Holocaust) which stands permanently in their schoolyard, is an unforgettable lesson of how a committed group of children and educators can change the world one classroom at a time.”
The movie begins with a background on the project: A middle school principal decides to send an assistant out to find a project that will help bring diversity into her completely lower-middle class, white, Christian school. The result: The Holocaust Project.
Each year, eighth graders in Sandra Roberts’ language arts class are encouraged to enroll in an after-school class that educates and activates the children’s minds against prejudice.
Starting with the project’s inception in 1998 to the construction of a memorial inside an authentic German railway car in September 2001, the documentary follows the classes’ journey into the very heart of evil and out again. The result, for anyone sitting in a darkened movie theater, is astounding.
The students in this movie, and their Tennessean community, do an absolutely courageous job of tackling the devastating effects of hatred and “racial cleansing.” And it is utterly amazing to see these young children transform themselves into adults right before the audiences’ unblinking eyes.
However, the movie has one glaring fault. While it trumps having a strong humanitarian and emotional angle, it lacks the historical knowledge and detail needed to back it up. This fault lies not with the students and the project itself, but rather the filmmakers’ incapacity to include documentation of the students learning about the Holocaust.
One of the most poignant parts of the movie comes when a handful of Holocaust survivors are invited to speak at the Whitwood First United Methodist Church. Through voices strangled with emotion, the survivors share their harrowing experiences in the concentration camps.
These men and women, says one girl with tears running down her cheeks, look just like everyone’s grandparents. They look like someone you could be friends with, and yet they were forced to suffer outrageous pain and evil for the sake of their beliefs.
The message meant to be conveyed during this scene is all too clear, but the movie unfortunately lacks proper documentation of the survivors’ stories and enough background information about the horrifying goal of the Nazi party.
However, it is through the eyes of this young woman, named Cassie Crabtree, that the true emotional impact of understanding the Holocaust is made.
The world will probably never completely understand what drives a government or institution to brutally annihilate a group of people on the basis of their culture, lifestyle or religion. The sheer idea of such blatant injustice is almost unfathomable. But the horrible truth is that genocide still lives among us; a silent, but deadly shadow of misery breathing down the neck of society.
Thankfully, it is social movements, laws and bills, cultures and movies like “Paper Clips” that force us into awareness, and therefore force us into the light and the power of love.
According to the documentary, “Symbols make us think. Symbols can change the world. They help us maintain our resolve even through our darkest and most tragic days.”
That is the power of “Paper Clips.”