Six years ago, a group of eighth-grade students in a small town in Tennessee decided to learn about the Holocaust by collecting a paper clip for every Jewish life taken by the Nazis.
Now their story is being told by a McLean group in the form of an award-winning documentary, “Paper Clips,” showing the evolution of both the students and their town as they realized the importance of a single life and the human toll of the Holocaust.
“We were so impressed with the story that we thought everyone should know about it and learn from these students. It’s a story of tolerance and brotherhood,” said Roland McElroy, who had worked on the film from its initial discussion.
“It’s a great story about how you can find prejudice everywhere. ... It’s a must see for teachers and students alike,” he said.
“As a documentary project, you’re always looking for a good story, because that’s what we are, storytellers,” said Bob Johnson, president of the Johnson Group, which produced the documentary.
Following a series of articles and broadcasts about the children’s project, Johnson and his company had a meeting discussing the option of chronicling the children’s quest to collect 6 million paper clips, one for every Jew killed during the Holocaust.
“We went down to the school (in Whitwell, Tenn.) to ask if we could speak with a group of Holocaust survivors who were at the school to talk with the students,” he said. “As it turned out, the story unfolded as we filmed it.”
THE STORY LINE of the film evolved as the filming occurred, said director Joe Fab. “At first we were going to direct the story as whether the kids would collect the 6 million paper clips they wanted, but as we were filming, they had received 16 million paper clips,” he said.
Another unlikely challenge in making the film was the lack of conflict, he said.
“You need conflict. A good story needs a central conflict,” he said, “and I can’t say how many times we were looking for a conflict of any kind, but we just didn’t find one.”
He credits Whitwell principal Linda Hooper for the town’s overwhelming support of the students’ endeavors.
“She’s a greatly respected figure,” Fab said. He spoke of how a town meeting was held to discuss how the school would teach the Holocaust and a subsequent workshop on the same issue. “One parent asked her if she’d allow her child to attend the workshop, and when she said she would, it won the town over,” he said.
The heart and soul of the film is in the children, however.
“They couldn’t comprehend 6 million people, so they asked their teacher if they could collect something to help them understand,” Johnson said. They had learned that people in Norway had worn paper clips on their lapels both in solidarity with the German Jews being persecuted and also in protest of the persecution, and decided that would be the perfect symbol, he said.
When the film crew from the Johnson group first arrived in Whitwell, the students had collected 2 million paper clips. By the end of the project, over 30 million paper clips had been collected, sent in to the school from people around the world who heard about their project.
“With the help of two German journalists, the students obtained a train car that had been used to take German Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers,” Johnson said. “They were told no such cars existed, but those two men found it and donated it to the school.”
Some paper clips were sent individually, others were sent in by the boxful; most had letters telling the story of a person in whose memory the clips were donated, putting names and faces to those who had died so many years ago.
“There are 11 million paper clips inside that train car today: 6 million for the Jewish people and 5 million for everyone else killed,” he said.
One of the most touching scenes from the film, Johnson said, is when the school receives a suitcase filled with paper clips and letters written to Anne Frank from German students.
“They were notes asking her for forgiveness,” he said. “At first, the paper clips were just lives to the students, but as they started reading the letters that often came with the clips, they became people.”
EVEN SOME CELEBRITIES donated paper clips to the students. They received donations from Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Tom Bosley (Mr. Cunningham from “Happy Days”), former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and current President Bush, Johnson said.
“The biggest story comes in at the end of the film,” Fab said, when the students — who had never met a Jewish person before in their small, mostly conservative Christian, entirely Caucasian town — were invited to speak at a synagogue in New Jersey.
“The children became teachers themselves,” he said, adding that the students of Whitwell are now teaching students from other schools about the Holocaust and guiding them through the rail car that has become a museum on their school’s campus.
Working on this film has opened the eyes of all those who had a part in it, the men say.
“I have three grandchildren, and I already looked at them with all the hopes and belief in them that one would look at their grandchildren with,” Fab said. “The kids in Whitwell make me a huge degree more encouraged. I think children are able to approach things so honestly and full of possibility.”
“Working on this film made me more aware of my own prejudices. We all have them,” Johnson said. “It also opened my eyes to the goodness and honesty of people, especially children and teachers in that school.”
When the movie was finished, it was first screened at Whitwell, where the production crew faced their toughest audience.
“It was quite a movie experience,” Johnson said. “They (the students, teachers and town residents) were thrilled with what we had done with their story. Their principal said they never set out to do something this big.”
ONCE THE FILM WAS FINISHED, a 7-minute trailer for the film was sent to some distribution companies to see if there was an interest in helping to release the film to a wider audience.
“Somehow it managed to get into the hands of someone at Miramax, and one of the vice presidents called to tell us they were interested in our film,” Johnson said. After a series of talks, Miramax had purchased the distribution rights to “Paper Clips.”
“We never expected or thought Miramax would pick up the movie,” Fab said. “If you write a feature film and can picture it (being purchased by a major company), if you go to making the film in that way, you look at your work as a big deal. But you don’t know what you’re going to have, and if you don’t know what will happen with the film, you’re dancing with it, watching the life unfold.”
The documentary was named “Best Overall Film” at the Rome International Film Festival, “Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature Film” at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, where it beat all five Oscar nominated documentaries last winter, and also “Best of Fest.” In total, “Paper Clips” has won 15 major awards at film festivals, as well as praise and acclaim from movie critics and audiences.
Currently, the movie has finished a week-long run at the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington in Arlington and is still running at the Avalon Theatre on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. A timeline of the film, along with a short trailer, is available on the Johnson Group’s Web site, www.thejgroup.com/WorkinProg.html.