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When Joe Fab came across a 2001 Washington Post article on a tiny Tennessee school’s project on the Holocaust, making an award-winning documentary out of it was not foremost in his mind. “The story was…about kids and paper clips,” laughs the 53-year-old Washington-based writer and co-director of the recently released Paper Clips. “How many paper clips do you want to look at over a two-hour movie?”

A few months later, Fab—who grew up in Montgomery County and attended Catholic University and the University of Maryland before managing D.C. nightspot the Wax Museum during the ’80s—learned that a group of Holocaust survivors from New York were planning to visit Whitwell Middle School, where students had collected millions of paper clips in an exercise to illustrate the magnitude of slaughter in World War II German concentration camps.

The New York group had heard about the project when one of the survivors’ relatives happened upon Whitwell’s Web site. “These people had lived through hell, and they were willing to tell their stories and try to connect with these kids,” Fab explains. “After interviewing the survivors, that’s when it really got interesting.”

Fab and the other members of the Johnson Group, a McLean, Va.–based production outlet, planned a short trip to Whitwell in May 2001 to film the survivors’ visit. The crew was unsure of what they’d find in the insular, largely fundamentalist town of 1,600.

“I was picturing Mayberry. I actually wasn’t even sure if there’d be a town. And Linda wouldn’t even take our calls,” Fab recalls, referring to Linda Hooper, the protective principal of Whitwell Middle School. “[Whitwell] didn’t trust the media. All [the other] media was there for a short time and told a circus version of what happened.”

The Johnson Group finally won Hooper’s support, however, and discovered a tightknit community quite different from the one they had imagined. “The way these children sincerely identified with and responded to the survivors’ stories and letters was incredible,” says Fab. “We were able to show that what these kids were doing reached beyond their small town. Whitwell has a community in the same way that the Jewish people, particularly the Holocaust survivors, have a community.”

After the group’s return to the Washington area, a seven-minute cut of the group’s footage was passed to some acquaintances at Miramax. The studio loved it and challenged Fab and his colleagues to develop the story into a full-length documentary.

Over the next two years, Fab and the Johnson Group returned to Whitwell to chronicle the growth of both the project and the students. A permanent monument, which includes an authentic German rail car, was erected outside of the middle school to house the 30 million paper clips and 30,000 documents, artifacts, and letters from survivors the children received. Schools from across the state come to tour the display, and the students in the project—many of whom had never ventured out of Tennessee—have been asked to speak at events all over the country.

Since its release, Paper Clips has garnered awards at several film festivals, including the Washington Jewish Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. And the documentary is screening not only in major cities, but also in small towns such as Whitwell.

“Every article written on the Whitwell paper-clip project said how unlikely a place Whitwell is for something like this to happen,” Fab says. “Once I got there, I realized how wrong those articles were. If you actually lived the values that Whitwell preaches, you’d come to…respect and appreciate diversity and tolerance.”—Michael Kabran