A documentary filmmaker and television producer best known for her tenure on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Kahane Cooperman teamed up with producer Raphaela Neihausen to make Joe’s Violin, a heart-rending documentary short which was shortlisted for an Oscar last month. Telling the story of a New York instrument drive, which forged an unexpected connection between a passionate young student, growing up in the nation’s poorest congressional district, and a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, the pair were grateful for the two-year, highly emotional experience, which more often than not, involved tears of joy on set. Speaking to Deadline, the duo touch on the beginnings of their collaborative relationship, the genesis of the short film, and the resonance of an immigrant’s story.
How did the story behind Joe’s Violin come to you?
Kahane Cooperman: I was a long-time producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and I was on my way to work with my car radio on, and I just heard a 15 second promo for the radio station’s instrument drive that they were having. It was simple. It just said, “Donate your instruments. All the instruments collected will go to New York City school kids. The instrument drive just started. We’ve already gotten donations—a flute from Brooklyn and a violin from a 91-year-old on the Upper West Side. A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor.” That was it. It was a 15 second thing, but I was immediately curious as to whether this violin had a story behind it. I didn’t know if it did, but I imagined it might.
At the next light I was like, “Huh. I wonder if this kid who gets it is ever going to know what that story is.” At the next light, I was like, “I wonder what that kid’s story is.” By the time I got to the parking lot, the idea of two strangers being connected by one instrument was just very compelling to me as an idea, so I went to my morning meetings and then ran to my desk and tried to contact the radio station.
Within a few weeks, I was knocking on Joseph [Feingold]’s door and meeting with him. It turned out, luckily, there indeed was a very poignant story to the violin and that he, at 91, was a good storyteller. I felt like it was worth following and seeing what would happen, so that’s what I did.
It struck me as amazing that Brianna Perez, this 12-year-old schoolgirl, connected strongly from the get-go to the idea of this history hidden within the violin.
Cooperman: I know. I know. She’s a remarkable person and I really could’ve never dreamt up a more inspiring school with better teachers. That the school picked Brianna, specifically, I just think it was fate, in a way, because there can’t be that many 12-year-old girls who can understand the depth of intangible meaning that is within that violin, what it means, and what it meant to Joseph, the previous owner. I think that they made a really remarkable choice in picking her for it.
Raphaela Neihausen: Often, Kahane and I would remark that if we had written a fiction script, with Brianna saying the things that she did, nobody would believe it. There’s such a poise and maturity and emotional warmth to the girl that so transcends her age.
How did you two come to link up on this project?
Neihausen: I moved to Montclair [New Jersey] five years ago because I helped launch the film festival in the town. Kahane was part of that organization and we became quick friends. On my end, I wasn’t looking to produce anything. I had produced only one film before and that was back in 2007. As great an experience as it was, my professional career is doing other things now. Kahane was in her house and laid up. Was it an ankle injury or a knee injury?
Cooperman: I broke my ankle and I was couch-ridden with nine screws and a metal plate, and a wonderful revolving door of friends coming in to visit me. One of them was Raphaela. I was telling her the story…
Neihausen: The second she told me the story, I don’t even think she asked me. I think I just said to her, “Kahane, I’m going to produce your film.” The way I describe it is often I don’t even feel like I chose this project. It chose me, and I’m a huge fan of Kahane’s, professionally and personally, so I was just really excited about the opportunity to collaborate on such an amazing story that I felt connected to on pretty much all levels.
Was it difficult to gain access to your subjects, and gain their trust? What was it like meeting them for the first time?
Cooperman: I would say that it really was not very difficult. There’s not a person involved who hasn’t been incredibly moved by this story. I think because of that, people were very willing to talk to us, give us their time and their insight. I do think I did it in the right way by starting out with the radio station through whom they started this instrument drive, and then they had this partner in the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which is actually crucial. They’re based in LA, by the way, but without them, that wouldn’t have gone to that school. If it wasn’t that school, Brianna wouldn’t have got it, so they’re a crucial part of it as well.
I think everyone understood that there was a real power in this story, and I think they were so thrilled to be part of it. I thought it would be harder than it was to film in the New York City school, but really, the administration couldn’t have been more welcoming and helpful to us. It was pretty great. We were at the point where Miss Kokoe, who is the main teacher featured in the film— Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan—when we would arrive with the crew, she would push the dolly with all the equipment and everything. She was so helpful. They were amazing.
Was it a very emotional experience to hear their stories first-hand?
Cooperman: As Raphaela can attest, while I was making this film, I was weeping for two straight years. I was so moved by what was unfolding before our eyes. I was constantly just in awe of all the goodwill and these wonderful people who were connected. I did not know how it would play out—there’s no guarantee that these characters would be as special as they were, or that they would connect at all. When the school decided to invite Joseph, I just thought, it’s so beautiful, because all these ends are going to come together.
I think Raphaela was there, we were all in the room filming when they actually met, and I think one of our editors who was in there who also shoots second camera, I think I could audibly hear her sobbing. I was trying to hold it back, but we all got to the point where crying in front of each other didn’t mean anything anymore, because everyone was in a state of watery eyes the whole time. I think also there’s the mom aspect that gets people, too.
There’s something so powerful about witnessing a story like this through the documentary form.
Cooperman: I couldn’t agree more.
Neihausen: It’s unusual that you can do happy crying these days, because I feel like there’s so much devastating crying, and obviously Joe’s history is devastating, but I feel more of the tears are just from being moved by the human experience of two people connecting across age and culture and time. Good tears in this movie.
Cooperman: Yeah, and I also think that there’s a poignancy, especially now, to the fact that these are immigrants. Joseph came from Poland, and while Brianna was born here, her family is from the Dominican Republic, and they are the people who make up the fabric of certainly New York City, but really the country, too. Especially right now, that minor theme in it has become all the more meaningful to me, and I feel all the more proud of that aspect of the story, and I think it was just happenstance that the car that takes Joseph away has an American flag waving on it. It was an Uber that had an American flag on it, but I always thought that was a nice little subtle nod, in a way.
It’s certainly interesting, and frightening, to consider that dimension to the film in light of recent events.
Cooperman: I worry about immigrants being victimized, and I worry about arts education. There’s a lot that I’m concerned about, so I’m really proud that we made a film that focuses on the goodness of people, and how a small act can have a great impact, and that sort of puts a magnifying glass on the connections between us, not the differences. I feel really proud of that aspect of the film, that what we put out there is something that is ultimately uplifting.
What was the most surprising discovery that came out of making this film?
Cooperman: The most surprising thing for me was the soulfulness of Brianna. That was, for me, something that I could’ve never predicted, that a girl who is only 12 years old could so deeply appreciate, in some sort of innate way, how meaningful this violin was. One of the girls says, “A violin is not just a violin,” and for Joseph and Brianna, they both use music to help get them through dark times. There was something in that and how it connects them that I just found unexpectedly moving. That’s the beauty of a documentary. You don’t know where it’s going to go, but I think the depth of her was the most surprising thing to me, and how deeply they connected.
The film shows them meeting on that first day, but they solidified a friendship that day that continues now. They write letters, and whenever they see each other at screenings, they’re inseparable. They have such a deep connection to each other. They’re arm in arm, they’re holding hands, they’re sitting next to each other. They write these letters back and forth and it was life-changing for both of them. You think that giving a violin to this young girl is going to change her life, but it changed his life, too.
Neihausen: When he meets her, one of the most moving lines in the whole film, to me, is when he says to her, “I never imagined the violin could go to someone like you.” He was also caught off guard, and there’s definitely a version of this story that could’ve been if either of them had been a little bit different, that friendship wouldn’t have been the way it became. It was just a combination of those two people together.
Cooperman: They were both open to it. The other thing that I think the story ended up being a nice example of is, it doesn’t matter how old you are—life can always be full of unexpected and wonderful surprises, and can keep evolving to the end.
To view Cooperman’s short, click here.