The violin's story

Kahane Cooperman on how a Holocaust survivor and a Tinker Bell fan came together in Joe's Violin.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Tinker Bell fan Brianna Perez meets Joseph Feingold in Joe's Violin
Tinker Bell fan Brianna Perez meets Joseph Feingold in Joe's Violin

In my conversation at Radical Media with Kahane Cooperman, director of this year's Oscar-nominated Joe's Violin, she explained how DOC NYC Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen, Richard Linklater and Dazed And Confused, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, and Letters From Baghdad co-director Zeva Oelbaum supported bringing to the screen the moving story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold and young musician Brianna Perez from the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls.

On being with Joseph Feingold:
On being with Joseph Feingold: "I learned in that hour that the violin had a poignant story attached to it and also that he was a capable storyteller."

When an object changes hands, commonly its story dies. We might speculate about the previous owner of a piece of vintage jewelry that catches our eye, or wonder who sat in an antique chair 100 years ago. Joe's Violin was born out of just such wondering and the impulse to know more about an instrument's past and future.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Joe Berlinger and you worked together before?

Kahane Cooperman: Yeah, I had worked with Joe Berlinger at Maysles Films a long time ago, that's how we first met. We both worked on staff there. I worked at the front desk. I was really young, just getting started. And he was doing marketing there. And we had never worked together since until this came along.

AKT: This being a project on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood?

KC: Yes, the In Cold Blood project which we're calling Untitled Holcomb Project. But I did get to do postproduction for Joe's Violin here at Outpost Digital, which is Radical's postproduction house. It's really because one of the organisations featured in my film, called the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation was founded by Michael Kamen.

Kahane Cooperman:
Kahane Cooperman: "The story gets to people. I think it's melted even the hardest of hearts." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Kamen's brother, Jon Kamen, is the founder of Radical Media. So when he heard I was doing this film that involved his late brother's organization and saw it he felt that it was so much in the spirit of what his brother intended and helped us out here.

AKT: How did It all begin with Joe's Violin?

KC: I was driving to work. I was listening to the car radio and I heard a promo [on WQXR] for the radio station's instrument drive. "Donate your instruments! All instruments will go to New York City school kids. You can donate a flute like so and so from Brooklyn or a violin like Joe Feingold, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor from the Upper West Side."

And I just thought, I wonder if that violin has a story. I didn't know if it did. It could have been a year old. This was day one or day two of the drive. Then at the next light, I wondered if the child that was going to get the violin would ever know what that story was. And at the next light, I was like, and what's that kid's story? And by the time I pulled into the parking lot...

AKT: You had your film!

Joseph Feingold and Brianna Perez:
Joseph Feingold and Brianna Perez: "He's so charmed by her and it was genuine."

KC: I was like, two strangers who live in a city, whose paths would never normally cross are going to be connected by this instrument, by this object. I felt really compelled by that idea. I got to work , I went to my obligatory meetings and then I immediately started and contacted the radio station.

After I gained their trust, they put me in touch with Joe Feingold who invited me to his apartment. I spent an hour with him and I learned in that hour that the violin had a poignant story attached to it and also that he was a capable storyteller.

AKT: The school hadn't been chosen at that time?

KC: No, the violin was sitting in a storage unit with the several thousand other instruments that had been collected. 3,000 instruments - I'm sure they all have a story. Which is an amazing idea also to speak of.

AKT: Do you have a special relationship with violins?

DOC NYC Executive Director and Joe's Violin producer Raphaela Neihausen:
DOC NYC Executive Director and Joe's Violin producer Raphaela Neihausen: "I'm fortunate to be friends with her." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KC: I don't. I'm a music appreciator but I don't play an instrument. I am moved by the power of music but also by the connections that we all share.

AKT: The object here is the key. Sometimes people can't communicate. Without the violin, the two of them would never have spoken with each other.

KC: They would never cross paths. It would never occur to them to speak. We are all in our own orbits, in our own isolated kind of worlds. Which is how it works, there's nothing wrong with it. Brianna was the 12 year old girl who was chosen. Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation placed the violin in a special school in the Bronx, called The Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, which is a fantastic, special place where they value arts education as much as academic education. It's a charter school and girls get in by lottery. The school's teachers and administration chose Brianna, who is only 12 years old.

AKT: Who likes to wear flowers in her hair.

KC: She does like to wear flowers in her hair and she likes Tinker Bell.

AKT: That's one of my favorite quotes - she likes Tinker Bell because "She's an independent, hard-working fairy!"

"I was like, two strangers who live in a city, whose paths would never normally cross are going to be connected by this instrument, by this object."

KC: It's an amazing line and she relates to that version of Tinker Bell.

AKT: How much was Brianna aware of the Holocaust?

KC: She was aware of the Holocaust. They teach at a fairly young age. They start teaching through The Diary Of Anne Frank. And Brianna was personally interested in the Holocaust and she had actually read on her own some about the Holocaust. From a filmmaking standpoint, I don't think I could have ever made up a more wise 12-year-old girl who so deeply understood the tangible and intangible value of this instrument.

AKT: The first time the two of them meet is what we actually see in your film?

KC: It was such a moving moment. I like having a story unfold before the camera. That the invitation to the school was from her in a letter was just a beautiful thing. I knew I wanted these two lives to intersect.

AKT: He touches her necklace, which is such a lovely gesture.

KC: Which has the violin [on the necklace]. I know.

"One of the levels of donation was Richard Linklater agreed to sign Criterion discs of Dazed and Confused."

AKT: The choice of the song - from Peer Gynt. His story has something of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, almost.

KC: It's incredible. And it's the lyrics that his mom wrote him. He didn't know it at the time that he was never going to see her again. It's just so deeply moving. As soon as I mentioned this song [Solveig's Song] and the lyrics that he received from his mother while he was in the Siberian labor camp before she was taken away - I saw one of the teachers, the music director Kokoe Tanaka [-Suwan], I saw her eyes widen.

She was like: "That's the song we're going to teach the student." We all got teary eyed. It's just a great mixing of cultures, too. This song from a totally different time period and place in the world is going to be taught to this young Dominican girl in the Bronx to be played for this older Polish man.

AKT: A shot that got to me is near the end when you just show the instruments in their cases. There is another linkage to the Holocaust that came to mind. Did you place it for that reason?

KC: It's like the second to last shot. To be honest, my original intention is to say this is one of many instruments and they all have deep stories. Each of those instruments equals a small act of generosity that can change someone's life. Of course, I can imagine when you think of some of those iconic photographs of the Holocaust where you have multiple piles of belongings. I could see how that would harken that.

"Brianna used Joe's violin to audition for performing arts high schools and she got into her first choice which is Talent Unlimited."

AKT: Yes, because the film does bring up that he lost his mother and little brother in Treblinka and that his other brother survived Auschwitz.

KC: I hadn't actually thought of linking it to those images but it makes sense.

AKT: Did you see Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley's Landfill Harmonic?

KC: I haven't yet. So many people have mentioned it to me. I need to see it. I've heard it's absolutely wonderful.

AKT: It is. I did the post screening discussion with them and they gave a little concert as well. The idea that they play on instruments made out of garbage from a landfill in Paraguay can completely change lives. There is also the idea of objects that continue on and link people - I talked about that last week in the context of Cezanne et moi with the actor Guillaume Gallienne, who also played Pierre Bergé in Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé said something along the lines that we don't really own objects, the objects just stay with us for a while and then continue on.

KC: It's true. And we never know. Who had the violin before Joseph? It was bought in a black market flea market in Germany. It was no questions asked. It may well have belonged to someone who perished in the Holocaust. The nice thing is, the instrument will stay in the school forever. It's passed down to a new girl once Brianna graduated. Brianna did graduate and it's passed down to a girl named Nya [Paulino] and she's absolutely lovely and Joseph got to meet her. We all just celebrated his 94th birthday together.

Joe's Violin poster
Joe's Violin poster

AKT: The film touched so many different people. Raphaela came on board as producer.

KC: Yeah, my producer! Raphaela Neihausen is the producer of this film. I'm fortunate to be friends with her. We both live in Montclair, New Jersey, where she and her husband [DOC NYC Artistic Director] Thom Powers came originally to start the Montclair Film Festival and ended up settling there with their young son and we all became friendly.

I had broken my ankle and was recuperating from surgery on my couch for a month and she was one of my many friends who came by and I was telling her how I was so frustrated that I had to postpone my first interview for this film I was working on. And I told her the story of the film and right then and there she said "I want to help you produce this." The story gets to people. I think it's melted even the hardest of hearts.

AKT: Richard Linklater? I saw him listed in the thanks end credits.

KC: All of our money was raised on Kickstarter. One of the levels of donation was Richard Linklater agreed to sign Criterion discs of Dazed And Confused. And I had done the documentary about that film which is on the DVD. It was an organic connection there. He donated also. All kinds of people. My boss at the time, Jon Stewart, also agreed as an incentive to sign personalised Daily Show books to people.

AKT: I also noticed Zeva Oelbaum's name.

KC: Yeah, she lives in Montclair. I didn't know her at the time but Raphaela did.

AKT: I spoke with her about Letters From Baghdad.

KC: And her son was a grip on Joe's Violin. He helped us out in a couple of shots.

AKT: Two sentences struck me during the first meeting of Brianna and Joe. She says to him "you never gave up" [as the reason why he survived]. And he, a moment later, says " I'm in love with her." It's so funny.

KC: Everyone is so emotional at that point. It's just a relief that there's this moment of levity, I think, because he's so charmed by her and it was genuine. The camera's on him and he's just asking the question, sort of rhetorically, "What did I do?" and then out of the mouth of this 12-year-old girl comes this profound thought - "You never gave up, you had hope." You can see the way the cameraman is so surprised and he swings the camera, like "What did you just say?" She's amazing.

AKT: What is she doing now?

KC: She's in 9th grade. Brianna used Joe's violin to audition for performing arts high schools and she got into her first choice which is Talent Unlimited. She had two audition songs and the second one was Solveig's Song.

AKT: As a complete aside - did you know that Peer Gynt was Charlton Heston's first film role?

KC: No! That's hilarious.

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