The German railcar seemed aged and defunct, its exterior appeared faded and rusty, and it hadn't traveled on a railroad in a very long time. But its arrival in Whitwell, Tennessee, was eagerly anticipated by the entire community. As men carefully placed the railcar in front of Whitwell Middle School, the students, with their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and teachers, quietly approached the car, touched it, and wept. The railcar's place in history, they knew, was about to change forever.
The students--all Baptist or Methodist and white--had spent several years collecting and counting nearly 30 million paper clips, sent from all over the world. They had studied the Holocaust to understand tolerance and diversity, and had hoped to gather 6 million paper clips to create a Holocaust memorial. New the railcar--which had originally transported Jews to death camps--would forever house 11 million of the precious paper clips. The rest would be placed in another monument, or made available to other schools for similar projects.
Today, Whitwell's Children's Holocaust Memorial is visited by schools from all over the country, and Paper Clips, an award-winning documentary film about the project, has inspired audiences around the globe. We spoke with Ari Pinchot, who produced Paper Clips, about the "cliptomania" that gripped Whitwell.
BABA: Hi, Ari. How do you think filmmaking helps us remember our past?
ARI: I think films take people on journeys. They have the ability to teach something in a firsthand way, to help you experience something as if you're there. Movies can be an important tool in teaching history, because a child sitting in a dark theater watching a film is able to personalize and absorb those messages.
BABA: What does a movie producer do?
ARI: The producer is kind of like a supervisor of a project, and he makes sure that everything goes according to plan.
BABA: What made this film unique?
ARI: I think it was inspiring to see these individuals going out of their way to collect so many paper clips in memory of the victims of the Holocaust; after all, the students had no real cultural connection to those who died. And yet, the kids launched the project because they overlooked their cultural differences with the victims to see their shared humanity.
BABA: Why do you feel that it's important for people to remember the Holocaust?
ARI:Paper Clips is not just a Holocaust story. It's a lesson about the effects of intolerance and bigotry. It teaches the importance of respecting people and breaking down stereotypes. People must understand that we share a common bond: We're all human beings. This film echoes that sentiment and uses the Holocaust, one of the darkest periods in history, as a message for people who never heard about it. The Holocaust was a great evil, but it teaches an important lesson: When we see intolerance and bigotry, we need to take action.
BABA: Were previous generations of your family affected by the Holocaust?
ARI: No, my family was not affected by the Holocaust, and without that personal connection, I've struggled to empathize with those who suffered. This emotional detachment has always troubled me. While working on Paper Clips, I was finally able to relate to the suffering and sorrow of the victims.
BABA: Do you have a favorite Jewish memory?
ARI: One memory that stands out is a speech that I heard a rabbi give in Chicago. He talked about Yaakov struggling with the angel before going to meet Esau, and how George Lucas used that same theme in Star Wars, before Luke Skywalker went to battle Darth Vader. Luke has a dream-like sequence where he kills Darth Vader, and when he removes Vader's mask he sees himself. With Yaakov, he's actually doing battle with his yetzer hara; he has to face himself before he faces his enemy. That was when I realized how amazing Jewish traditions and texts are, and how films can effectively teach these lessons. And that's when I decided to become a filmmaker.
BABA: Thanks, Ari, for a really memorable interview!