Try not to cry during this Oscar-nominated film about a Holocaust survivor and his violin
Filmmaker Kahane Cooperman hasn’t written an Oscars acceptance speech yet, but she likely will before the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 28.
Not to jinx things or appear overconfident, Cooperman said in a telephone interview, but “on the chance it happens, for fear of leaving someone out.”
Her film, “Joe’s Violin,” is up for an award for short documentary — a category typically ignored by viewers more interested in what Emma Stone is wearing. It’s a 24-minute, five-handkerchief weeper; a joyous paean to the human spirit and a testimony of how simple acts of kindness can have important and far-reaching implications.
The (appropriately) short version of the film’s story: The eponymous Joe is Joe Feingold, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland. About three years ago, the lifelong violinist realized he no longer had the dexterity to play up to his standards.
“I had some good ideas of how a violin should be played,” he said in a separate telephone interview from his home in New York. “And I couldn’t [do it anymore]. The violin was here, in its case in my apartment, and I thought I should make some use out of it.”
He considered selling the instrument, but then heard an announcement on WQXR, the New York classical music station. Working in conjunction with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation — an outgrowth of the film that won Richard Dreyfus an Oscar — the station was looking for used instruments to be donated to needy New York City schoolchildren.
So Joe hopped on a bus and went to the collection point at Lincoln Center, where he left his treasured violin. Matters may have stood there were it not for the fact that Feingold and his instrument had a fascinating past and the recipient, Brianna Perez, 12 at the time, had this potentially amazing future: Two strangers connected by a fiddle.
Feingold was born in Warsaw in 1923. After the Nazis invaded in 1939, word reached the family that his father was about to be arrested. So Feingold and his dad fled to eastern Poland, then under Russian rule. But the Hitler-Stalin pact changed everything. Father and son were sent to separate Siberian labor camps and, while they both survived, Feingold’s mother and one of his two brothers who stayed behind did not.
After the war, Feingold made his way to a displaced persons camp in Germany. One day he was at a flea market and saw a violin — like Proust’s madeleine, it brought back memories of happier times. Lacking money, he bartered a carton of cigarettes for the instrument.
Why a violin?
“Because I had a violin since childhood,” he said. “I loved the violin. I studied it. I played it. I wasn’t a great violinist, but the music I made, it meant something to me. I missed it.”
Music was central to his prewar life, Feingold said. His mother sang — especially the songs of Edvard Grieg — and the family performed weekly for guests.
In the film, Feingold downplays the significance of his donation.
“I thought it was just a violin,” he said. “It was a simple thing. I don’t use it. Let someone else have it.”
But during our conversation — perhaps because he’s had time to reflect, or perhaps because he wants to promote the documentary — he offers a different perspective.
“I always thought it should mean something to the person who gets it, just as it did for me,” he said. “It played such a great role in my life. When I found out that the violin was given to a girl in the South Bronx, that’s exactly what I dreamed would happen.”
That girl, Brianna, is an old — or, at least, middle-aged — soul in a youthful body. She was a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a K through 8 school where every pupil is taught violin from day one.
Relatively quickly, she grasped the significance of the gift.
“That violin has so many secrets that nobody knows,” Brianna says in the film.
Cooperman calls Brianna “the most amazing 12-year-old.”
“She had an innate respect and profound understanding of why this violin was meaningful beyond just a musical instrument,” added the filmmaker, a first-generation American whose father left Germany in 1934.
Cooperman heard about Feingold’s donation during a promotional segment on WQXR in 2013, which sparked the idea for the documentary.
As such, the earlier parts of the violin’s odyssey are told in a voice-over at the beginning of the film. But the viewers see everything else: We are at the assembly where a teacher chokes up as she tells students about the violin, its donor and announces Brianna will receive it. We are there when Feingold reads the letter Brianna wrote inviting him to the school. We watch him at a different assembly addressing the students and, later, as he listens to Brianna play the special Grieg number she painstakingly practiced.
Did any of the events take place because there was a camera there to film it?
Cooperman says no, this violin and its tale would have been treated specially even if she wasn’t on hand.
“I think everyone knew that while all the 3,000 instruments donated in this drive had a story, there was something compelling about this one,” she said. “It stood out from the pack.”
Cooperman launched the film while still working as a co-executive producer on “The Daily Show,” a gig she got 18 years earlier because of her background as a documentarian. She quit the job, she said, to return to her roots.
“Making money was never part of this for me,” Cooperman said. “It was a labor of love.”
In fact, Cooperman and her producer, Raphaela Neihausen, needed Kickstarter to crowdsource the funding — it’s unlikely that all 277 backers of the film will be in the planned Oscar speech.
“I do not see ‘Joe’s Violin’ specifically as a Holocaust film — for me it’s more about human connection and hope,” Cooperman said. “But I am very proud that through Joe, we hear a first-person account [of what happened], especially when there are fewer and fewer voices left.”
Typical of short doc nominees, the film is available online at JoesViolin.com.