Human Nature 

The Woodsman is challenging; Paper Clips, inspirational.

There aren't any woodsmen anymore, so laments a character in The Woodsman. "Woodsmen," you ask? You know, like in "Little Red Riding Hood." Ms. Red was saved by a woodsman who sliced open the wolf that had consumed both her and her granny, thereby setting them free. Seems like these days there are more wolves than woodsmen.

Enter the wolf: Walter. Early 40s. Quiet. Keeps to himself. Played by Kevin Bacon. He's just starting work at a lumberyard after a 12-year prison stay. His crime? He was a child molester. But, like alcoholism, where a person is considered an alcoholic long after their last drink, is a child molester always a child molester? This is very much on his mind as he leaves the hell of prison only to reenter a different kind of hell: temptation, isolation, and the stigma of Walter's crime. Not a lot of employers want to hire an ex-con, much less his kind, but a friend of Walter's brother takes him on at his lumberyard, provided there's no trouble.

It's looking like things might work out for Walter. He reconnects with his brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), even though his sister won't see him. There is even a pair of women at work who find the quiet, aloof Walter attractive. Mary-Kay (played by singer Eve) gets her feelings hurt when Walter's not interested, while Vickie (Mrs. Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick) won't take no for an answer. Mary-Kay gets nosy when rejected and snoops around, while Vickie manages to get Walter in the sack. Both women will find out about Walter's past, and his success at reintegrating into society rests somewhat on the consequences of how they deal with this knowledge.

Meanwhile, in between work, time with Vickie, visits from Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), a verbally abusive police detective, and required visits with a therapist, there is Walter's bus ride home a bus ride that also includes a number of pretty, young girls. If he stays on long enough, he can find out where each girl gets off. Why does Walter keep riding the bus long after his stop? To test himself? To satisfy his repressed urges? Walter wants more than anything to be normal, but he feels more and more out of control as his intimacy with Vickie progresses and scrutiny at work increases. One day, when the pressure gets to be too much, Walter gets on that bus and subjects himself to the temptation of following a girl into a densely wooded park. Will he speak to her? Will he touch her?

Bacon, an actor who has been turning in fine work for more than 20 years, finds the role of his lifetime here in Walter. Or, rather, he has found just the right amount of spotlight in a property that showcases his strong points while challenging, successfully, parts of him we have not seen. Regardless, his is a courageously understated performance and one that neither passes judgment nor solicits undue sympathy from the audience. He's not particularly likable, which challenges our ability to get past his past, so to speak. Bacon is surrounded by an able supporting cast willing to take the same plunge he does. Thus we are treated to career-best work from Sedgwick and Mos Def and strong work from everyone else. (The therapist is played by Michael Shannon, a guy I went to high school with. Talk about Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!)

The Woodsman asks many questions that society in general would be well-advised to ask. The epidemic of child sexual abuse is second in magnitude only to the epidemic of ignorance that surrounds sexuality in general, and The Woodsman is peopled almost entirely by characters who have been damaged (or are damagers themselves) by this ignorance. Nicole Kassell, who directs from a script she adapted with Steven Fechter from his play, handles these questions (and the elusive answers) with sensitivity and wisely defers judgment to the audience. (Dare we judge?) With strange camera angles that occasionally look like the view from a security camera and ambiguously droning music, she places us in a role not unlike that of the detective who haunts and harasses Walter well-intentioned but judgmental snoop. Or is that platonic voyeur? Regardless, that role is not a comfortable one, as it requires at least a little bit of sympathy for Walter the kind of person we are taught to fear and revile and some condemnation for those who fear and revile him, as an angry mob needs not torches and pitchforks to be an angry mob.

Shot on clear, home-movie-style video with bare-bones, basic editing and photography, Paper Clips is not a film that calls much attention to itself. An 80-minute, "inspirational" account of a middle-school class studying the Holocaust, it's the kind of film you might expect to be shown in classrooms or to be screened at regional or specialty film festivals. It might even pop up on public television.

All of those things have either happened or were planned, but Paper Clips, which tracks a novel project started by students, teachers, and administrators in tiny Whitwell, Tennessee, has risen above its station: This little documentary is distributed by Miramax, home of artful blockbusters and Oscar winners. Now, this doesn't mean Paper Clips will appear in multiplexes around the country, but it does suggest that the film will be more widely seen than it otherwise might have been. And that's a good thing, because Paper Clips really is inspirational.

Paper Clips tracks a small thing that grew into something big. Studying the Holocaust is nothing unusual in schools, but the teachers at Whitwell found that their kids were having trouble grasping the magnitude of the event. That six million Jews (and 11 million people total) were killed didn't quite register. The number was too large to imagine. To make the loss more tangible, the kids of Whitwell decided to collect something as a symbol. It was decided that it would be paper clips, which are cheap and small, and, as it turns out, were worn on lapels in Norway during the war as an act of silent defiance.

And so the kids at Whitwell Middle School started collecting paper clips, with their goal six million. They wrote letters describing their project and asking for donations. They got them, from companies, from celebrities (Bill Cosby, Tom Hanks), from politicians (the past three presidents), and, most movingly, from Holocaust survivors and the children of survivors. And these paper clips came with letters.

Some people sent bulk paper clips, but others sent individual clips dedicated to family members or friends who had perished in the Holocaust. After a few newspaper and television reports on the school's project, including in German newspapers, assistant principal David Smith had to start going to the post office himself to cart back the daily mail; it was too much for the postal service to deliver. One class of German school children even sent a suitcase full of paper clips, each appended with a handwritten apology note to Anne Frank. Soon Holocaust survivors from across the country were making pilgrimages to the town to meet the kids and tell their stories.

Whitwell is a town of roughly 1,500 people, located 24 miles northwest of Chattanooga. "We're what's called a 'depressed community,'" middle school principal Linda Hooper explains. "But we're not depressed. We're just poor." Like so many rural communities, Whitwell's a homogeneous place. The town has more traffic lights (two) than Jews or Catholics (zero). The middle school itself had only two African-American children and a sole Latino child. This homogeneity put Whitwell's kids at a disadvantage when they left the town, especially when they went off to college and confronted a world far more diverse than what they grew up with.

This is why Hooper describes the school's decision to implement the Holocaust study class in 1998 as essentially a selfish act. "It was no great mission," she says. "It was a need. Our need."

The paper-clip project itself takes on a life of its own, and its unlikely, outrageous success is wondrous. The Whitwell kids receive more than 25,000 pieces of mail and nearly 30 million paper clips. A couple of German journalists help the school find an authentic German rail car, one once used to transport people to the camps, and helps get it shipped to Whitwell, where it stores 11 million of the clips as a permanent "children's memorial" to the Holocaust. Now kids from other towns take field trips to Whitwell to see the memorial, with tours given by Whitwell students.

But as amazing as the paper-clip project itself is, what's most legitimately moving about the film itself is how the project becomes such a multifaceted teaching tool and how the filmmakers allow this dynamic to quietly present itself.

For these kids (and the adults who guide them), the Holocaust class and the paper-clip project become not just vehicles for learning about tolerance but for combatting the stereotypes and prejudices the people of Whitwell form of others and those others form of them. A Washington Post reporter licks her chops when she learns of the project and realizes that Whitwell is only 30 miles away from Dayton, home of the "Scopes Monkey Trial," and 100 miles from Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was founded. But traveling to Whitwell challenges her preconceptions of the rural South. And one of the most touching moments comes from assistant principal Smith's mid-film epiphany about the latent racism he inherited from his father that he desperately wants to avoid passing on to his young sons.

At its core, Paper Clips isn't just about how studying the Holocaust has transformed these kids. It's about how the project has transformed the way outsiders see them and, hopefully, others like them. Hooper, an authentic heroic figure (she throws her hands up at how to put together a memorial, but one of her teachers jokes, "God invented the world in seven days, and he didn't even have Linda Hooper to help him") purportedly told the filmmakers, "If you make my children look like rednecks, I'll eat your hearts for breakfast." She needn't have worried. They couldn't have if they tried.

Chris Herrington

Paper Clips opens February 4th at Malco Ridgeway Four.

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