Paper Clips is one of those movies that inevitably leads people to hail it as proof that “there is goodness in this world,” its naîve simplicity charming everyone from the Bible Belt to the New York suburbs, its utter wholesomeness inspiring all sorts of magazine and newspaper features about the purity of the filmmakers’ motives. So it would take a cynic of epic proportions to point out that the film is a work of rank narcissism, one of the most self-serving documentaries I’ve ever seen, not to mention a three-minute human interest news clip stretched out to feature length. I’m up to the challenge.
Let me set the stage for you. A middle school in a homogenous, sheltered Tennessee community (no Jews, barely any blacks, maybe a Latino or two) decides to expand its students’ horizons and begin a project to teach the 8th graders about the Holocaust. A few questions here: did the school’s previous curriculum not include the Holocaust? Had this groundbreaking endeavor not been undertaken, would the kids have emerged from middle school and high school not having heard a thing about World War II?
No matter. A project to learn about the Holocaust. Fine. Someone has a brilliant idea: to give the kids a sense of the sheer magnitude of the massacre, why not collect six million paperclips, with each one representing a Jew murdered by the Nazis. So the school starts a letter-writing campaign to celebrities and corporations asking for donations of paperclips, and lo and behold, they start pouring in, along with glowing notes expressing pride in the students’ resolve.
Now, let’s get something straight: this paperclips thing is a wonderful idea, an uncommonly creative pedagogical flourish, and more power to Whitwell Middle School for running with it and even achieving a certain level of notoriety as a result. It is not this noble travail I have a problem with (in fact, I think it was probably even more well-intentioned that portrayed here, but more on that later), but the movie which, in its efforts to make the project into something extraordinary, holds it up to ridicule.
Directors Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab feel the need to necessarily put their subject into a larger societal context, and they do so by harping on the stereotypes about the Tennessee community — that they’re a bunch of provincial rednecks who run screaming at the sight of a black person. This is established from the start, despite the fact that the thought would not otherwise have crossed my mind. In questioning the principal, teachers, parents and students about this topic, the directors invariably put them in the position of having to frame the paperclip project as being about them rather than the Holocaust. There is so much talk about dismantling those stereotypes, that the real purpose of the endeavor seemingly becomes clear: these people have something to prove, namely that they’re not rednecks.
Had this been a conscious discovery by the filmmakers and had they tried to go somewhere with it, that would have been one thing; instead, they continue to insist that the paperclip project is some kind of gift to mankind and an automatic ticket to heaven for everyone involved. Paper Clips engages in a weird sort of intellectual dishonesty: it both fails to give these people enough credit by unjustly focusing on their implicit narcissism, and gives them far, far too much by exaggerating their accomplishments beyond reason. Both approaches are insufferable.
It almost goes without saying at this point that the film is also tedious. I went in knowing nothing about what I was about to see, and I spent a large portion of these 90 minutes waiting for something to happen — some controversy to surface or some conflict to rear its head. When it became apparent that this wasn’t in the cards, I spent a few minutes wondering if this wasn’t a mockumentary — something in the Christopher Guest vein, only subtler. That doesn’t seem to be the case either. This is nothing more sophisticated than a cheery newsmagazine segment with a seriously confused point of view and no desire to engage the audience honestly.