Kahane Cooperman, a longtime producer of “The Daily Show,” has enlisted a few friends and former co-workers to help spread the word about her labor-of-love documentary short “Joe’s Violin,” which has earned an Oscar nom.
Stephen Colbert moderated a Q&A with Cooperman and “Joe’s Violin” producer Raphaela Neihausen on Friday night following a screening of the 24-minute film at Manhattan’s SVA Theatre. Larry Wilmore did the same in Los Angeles earlier this week for a screening held at the Museum of Tolerance. Jon Stewart will do the honors on Monday for a second outing at the SVA Theatre.
“Joe’s Violin” tells the story of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold and 12-year-old Brianna Perez. The two are brought together by chance after Feingold donates a violin to a instrument drive for public school students held by New York City public radio station WQXR.
The film deftly weaves Feingold’s history of fleeing the Nazis as a teenager in Warsaw, his years in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia and loss of family members in the Holocaust with Perez’s story as the daughter of immigrants from Dominican Republic.
The violin that Feingold acquired in exchange for a carton of cigarettes in a displaced persons camp after World War II winds up with Perez, who sparks to the music program at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls charter school in one of the poorest communities in the country. It’s pretty much impossible to watch the scene of their first meeting, where she plays the instrument for him, without needing a tissue.
“It’s a film that breaks your heart and fills it at the same time,” Colbert said.
Cooperman, Colbert and Neihausen are also active together in the Montclair Film Festival held in their suburban New Jersey town. Cooperman got the inspiration while listening to a public radio report on the instrument drive and the donation by a Holocaust survivor as she drove to work at the “Daily Show” a few years ago. She had a hunch there was a good story behind Feingold’s instrument. But she had no idea where the violin would land.
The story that unfolded was more meaningful than anything Cooperman and Neihausen could have scripted. The setting of the Bronx Global Learning Institute and the important role that Perez’s music teacher, Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, has played in the girl’s life added to emotional depth.
“It was like a goodwill adventure for everyone involved — it was about the power of music, the connection to history and I think everyone was just genuinely moved to their core,” Cooperman said. Feingold, Perez (who is now 14) and Tanaka-Suwan were on hand for the screening.
Neihausen said Perez’s wisdom beyond her years made her a compelling subject. “She was the most profound 12-year-old girl who really understood history and what this story means beyond the violin,” she said. “We were very lucky to get to capture so many extraordinary people’s lives.”
“Joe’s Violin” premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Oscar nomination has put a big spotlight on the short, and it allowed Perez to make a trip to Los Angeles this week to attend the Oscar nominees luncheon, where she had a memorable encounter with Denzel Washington.
The New Yorker and Conde Nast Entertainment have made the short available for free online viewing. Neihausen said a TV deal and educational outreach efforts are also in the works.
The number of people who coalesced to make “Joe’s Violin” possible — including 277 donors via an online fundraising effort — reinforces the larger theme of the film, in Cooperman’s view.
“A small act can have a great impact beyond your imagining,” she said.