WASHINGTON — A talented teen pulls her bow across a special set of strings.
Standing poolside at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 6, Denzel Washington stops in his tracks to listen to the soulful violin of 14-year-old Brianna Perez, whose touching story is chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary short “Joe’s Violin,” directed by Bethesda native Kahane Cooperman.
“It was an incredible moment I will probably never forget,” Cooperman told WTOP. “[Denzel] asked if she wanted a photo and she said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘OK, on one condition: Play something for me.’ So, right then and there, by this pool in front of strangers and Denzel Washington, her idol, Brianna pulled out Joe’s violin … and played Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’ for him. … Despite the fact that it was on such a busy day, he took the time for her … I’m surprised you can’t hear me sniffling in the background.”
It was a goosebump moment in a whirlwind Oscar ride for Cooperman, who graduated from Walt Whitman High in Bethesda before moving to New Jersey. After earning 11 Emmys and 2 Peabodys producing “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” this marks her first ever Academy Award nomination.
“I had my daughter and my husband in the room with us while we watched the announcement on television — my son had already gone off to school,” Cooperman said. “We sat on the edge of the couch in our living room and heard the announcement. Of course, when we heard the name of our film, we just screamed and teared up and every clichéd reaction that you think you won’t do, you do.”
The film follows 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold, who was living on the Upper West Side of New York City when he heard about a charity instrument drive by WQXR Radio and the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. He donated his precious violin, which wound up in the hands of 12-year-old Perez, a Dominican-American girl living in America’s poorest congressional district in the Bronx.
“Two strangers from completely different walks of life, born 80 years apart [are] connected by a single violin,” Cooperman said. “I didn’t know if the violin had a significant history when I started doing this, but in talking to Joseph, I soon found it had an incredibly poignant history attached to it.”
Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1923, Feingold grew up in a musical family and learned to play violin with his mother until the Nazis and Soviets invaded Poland. At age 17, Feingold was sent to a Siberian labor camp for over six years, while his mother and brother were killed in concentration camps. After the war, Feingold fled with his father to Germany and eventually resettled in New York, where he found work as an architect and traded a pack of cigarettes for a violin to play in memory of his family.
“Once I learned the story from Joseph and felt like he was a wonderful storyteller, I thought I’d follow and see what happened,” Cooperman said. “[The violin] couldn’t have gone to a more impressive school, and they chose a really unusual and amazing young 12-year-old girl to receive the violin.”
Born to Dominican parents, Perez is one of many students at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls that comes from new immigrant families, mostly from South America, the Caribbean and Africa.
“Brianna’s family is from the Dominican Republic [and] Joseph came here as a refugee [who] came here in 1947 from a displaced persons camp,” Cooperman said. “Both he and Brianna are classic immigrant stories and these beautiful people that make up the fabric of what makes our country what it is.”
Like any great filmmaker, her adherence to theme allowed her to capture happy accidents on camera.
“There’s a moment toward the end when Brianna and Joseph say goodbye and Joseph gets into a car,” Cooperman said. “The Uber drives away with Joseph, this immigrant and refugee, leaving a school where this young girl is. This car we just happened to get, happens to have an American flag waving in the wind as it drives away. That has taken on, since the election, an incredible resonance for me.”
Not only does the film exude such Statue of Liberty ideals, it also speaks to the generous spirit of the American people. The instrument drive initially estimated it would receive 1,000 instruments, but it received a whopping 500 donations on the first day alone and a total of 3,000 instruments by the end.
“This film is about many things and one of them is about how a small act can have a truly great impact,” Cooperman said. “You have to imagine that every single one of those instruments has a story and all of these instruments are being connected with kids who I’m sure also have amazing stories.”
You can tell Perez appreciates the deep history of Feingold’s violin. At one point, she tells her classmates, “There are so many secrets in this violin.” Later she says, “I have history in my hands.”
That history reaches its emotional peak as black-and-white photos show how Feingold wrote his mother letters once a month from his labor camp. One day, she writes him back with chilling lyrics.
“She wrote him back a particularly poignant letter that quoted the lyrics of “Solveig’s Song” written by Edvard Grieg,” Cooperman said. “It was a passage from the song about someone who’s missing someone and will wait for them and will be there when they return. … There’s added poignancy to the fact that when Joseph received this letter, he did not know that he would never see his mother again.”
So you can imagine the emotion in the room when Joseph first meets Brianna, who pulls out the violin and plays that very song for him. Pulling the bow across those strings, it’s as if Joseph’s mother is standing in the room with them, fulfilling her promise that she will wait for him on the other side.
“I couldn’t have predicted she would invite him to the school and that he would accept,” Cooperman said. “I also didn’t know if they’d actually connect, but the connection in the moment of meeting is so tangible and palpable, you could feel it when we were filming it and I think it comes across in the film. It’s a true bond. They are forever bonded and they stay in touch to this day. They love each other.”
Watch the entire 24-minute Oscar-nominated documentary short “Joe’s Violin” in the video below, then listen to our full conversation with director Kahane Cooperman in the audio beneath the video:
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