Film shows children counting tragedy in paper clips

By Larissa Gula

When a group of Tennessee students set out to learn about a tragedy 12 years ago, they managed to create a globally recognized movement. “Paper Clips”

Graduate School of Public Health Auditorium

Today at 8:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public

When a group of Tennessee students set out to learn about a tragedy 12 years ago, they managed to create a globally recognized movement.

The documentary “Paper Clips” examines a project that middle-school students in Whitwell, Tenn., took upon themselves one day while learning about the Holocaust. Unable to comprehend just how massive the 6 million person death toll was of Jewish people, the students decided to collect paper clips to help them understand the magnitude of lives lost. This project eventually grew to 11 million paper clips, 6 million to represent Jews and 5 million to represent gypsies, homosexuals, and other victims of the Holocaust, according to the documentary’s website.

The movement became so great that it attracted global attention, gained a name — the Paper Clips Project — and led to the building of a monument in their hometown.

The Hillel Jewish University Center will bring the film’s producer, writer and co-director Joe Fab for a question-and-answer session and screening of the “Paper Clips” documentary at 8:30 p.m. today. Fab has spoken at events before, so the board agreed his presence would add to the screening, said Hillel president Becca Tanen, a junior at Pitt.

“It is particularly appropriate to have Holocaust education programming during the month of November, during which the anniversary of Kristallnacht also falls,” Tanen said.

Kristallnacht took place Nov. 9, 1938. The night marks the Nazi’s destruction of 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, the burning of hundreds synagogues, the murder of at least 91 Jewish people and the deportation of thousands of Jewish men to concentration camps.

Fab began the film  after reading a Washington Post article about the original project. It took several weeks to contact the school’s principal and teacher, but Fab was patiently determined.

“We wanted to do this because everyone in our company [the Johnson Group] loves stories about children,” he said. “We had done films for the [United States] Holocaust [Memorial] Museum in Washington, [D.C.] That made me think about how great it would be to do something independent of the institution.”

The documentary screening is meant to teach people about their role in Holocaust education, said  Mia Jacobs, the marketing chair for the Hillel Student Board.

“If you watch a movie it may impact you, and you may remember it, but this isn’t a period piece. It’s about how we are the generation now responsible for carrying this legacy, and we have to acknowledge this is a global issue,” she said.

Fab’s attendance at the screening will add to the documentary and allow him to answer questions like why students today should continue to care about issues from the past, Jacobs said.

“It’s my experience that it’s easy to be beaten down by Holocaust movies and education because it’s so depressing and tragic,” Jacobs said. “But we are in charge of this legacy. We need to make sure people don’t forget. [We’re a] generation that has to remember and teach the future generations who won’t be able to listen to survivors. I think ‘Paper Clips’ illustrates this well.”

Though the film is also about the Holocaust during World War II, the primary story in Fab’s documentary is about the children in Tennessee who wanted to go an extra step to learn.

“The children found they couldn’t say the number and move on,” Fab said. “It was too staggering. When people see the film, they’ll have known it had to do with the collecting [of the paper clips], but they’ll find it’s about a lot more. The project was the trigger. But what the children learn when they hear stories from Holocaust survivors, when they decide to react compassionately to what they learn, they decide to do something.”

Fab also believes that this documentary reveals the power these middle-school children held, and this is a key point people can take from the film today.

“Young people are treated as if they will be ready to participate in life someday,” Fab said. “They’re always in a state of getting ready. I learned while working on this film and being around the kids that they were curious, compassionate and very capable. They did something to say they understood this, and they wouldn’t tolerate this sort of thing in a world they’re creating. Imagine if you could bring scores of young people into the mix and if they could contribute at the age the kids do in this film. We could get a lot more done if we engaged them.”

Fab hopes that the film documentary he has created will leave a lasting impression on the audience.

Though a news article inspired him, the film medium allows viewers to become more deeply involved with the tragedy, he said.

“Reading is wonderful, but you add to this the idea about why I am pleased to be coming,” he said. “People experience it and go through the emotions of the film and feel the emotions of people in the room, and when it’s over we add the idea that we’re going to talk. I think people come away with different reactions.”

Fab also believes that this film will challenge college students, considering that middle-school students began the project with almost no funding.

Fab encourages college students to make time to come to see the documentary.

“It’s easy to have something else to do, but I’ve seen people get something from watching this film,” he said. “You never know what will happen, who will have an idea that will grow into something. I like to point out that when the children were learning about the Holocaust, a student said, ‘Wait.’ That student started something big.”