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'Paper Clips': Doc With Dimension

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page WE42

The best way to appreciate Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin's documentary is to ignore the mood-bullying music, cheesy narration and plodding style so you can focus on the touching story at its heart.

In 1998, Tennessee middle school Principal Linda Hooper decided her students, all from a rural, white, Christian background, could use a little diversity in their lives. Working with Assistant Principal David Smith and teacher Sandra Roberts, they decided to have their eighth-grade students study the Holocaust. This led to the idea of collecting 6 million paper clips to honor the lives of every Jew killed by the Nazis. The project exploded beyond their wildest imaginings, especially after a Washington Post article and a feature on NBC news. Whitwell Middle School became a symbol of remembrance, with letters and clips from around the world. And helped by German journalists Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, the school found a death transport railcar from Berlin to house the clips and form a permanent memorial on the school grounds.

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Over the course of four years, Berlin and Fab show the often-moving highlights, most particularly visits to the school by death camp survivors. These moments will draw tears from any human. And "Paper Clips" also becomes a movie about the defeat of stereotypes on many levels. Smith's evolution from a racist environment in his parents' home to his appreciation for different races is touching stuff. But there are more rewards to this project. Not only did Whitwell learn to embrace the culturally different, it showed the world there's more moral dimension to the religious rural south than many allow for.

PAPER CLIPS (G, 87 minutes) --Contains sad anecdotes and emotional content. At the Avalon and Loews Shirlington.

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