During a drive to donate musical instruments to public schools, 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold offers his beloved violin, which he has played for more than 70 years. The instrument goes to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, where young musician Brianna Perez is inspired to become friends with her benefactor.
Director: Kahane Cooperman
Perhaps the most arresting observation to take away from ‘Joe’s Violin’ is how director/producer Kahane Cooperman was able to elevate the subject matter from heartwarming anecdote to a profound statement about heritage and legacy. After hearing, by chance about the instrument donation drive on the radio, and that one of the donors was a 91 year-old holocaust survivor and the recipient was a 12 year-old girl from the Bronx, Cooperman immediately began to explore the narrative potential in these two disparate lives.
Early on, events are set in motion that will lead to Joe and Brianna’s eventual meeting, so the film’s objective effectively becomes to have us invested in both of their lives so as to fully appreciate that moment. In order to do that ‘Joe’s Violin’ becomes an amalgamation of historical events and an observation of contemporary social issues, briefly touching on such themes as immigration and low-income households.
As one might expect, their backgrounds and experiences could not be more different. Despite this, Cooperman along with editors Amira Dughri and Andrew Saunderson have meticulously constructed parallel narratives that expertly transition between one another. There are a few visual flourishes applied to old photos from Joe’s youth ranging from old family photos to his time in a displaced persons camp following World War Two. The film does not rely on this to establish its style, but it does create an appropriately otherworldly effect when traversing Joe’s history feeding into the emphasis that Joe and Brianna’s origins are literally worlds apart.
The connective tissue between 91 year-old Joe and 12 year-old Brianna is the transcendent, almost spiritual effect that music seems to have on them. While Joe and Brianna’s stories of hardship are recounted in moving detail, it is their love of music that elevates them both above the adversarial challenges that confront them. Brianna’s mother speaks at length about how Brianna almost disappears into the music when she plays. The focus, composure and remarkable assuredness that Brianna displays when she performs stand in stark contrast to the sweet but shy girl that we are introduced to.
The inevitable contrast between young and old/past and present is displayed prominently, but to the credit of Cooperman, she is not heavy handed in her use of these contrasts to tell the story. Instead Cooperman respectfully uses Joe’s story, his connection to music through his family and their harrowing experiences during the war to imbue his violin with a priceless value. The film succeeds by showing Brianna having a broad realisation of what she has inherited, what that inheritance means and how important it is to use that inheritance wisely, resolutely and generously.
Whether intentionally or not, ‘Joe’s Violin’ becomes an allegory for our heritage as human beings. Going simply beyond honouring our own cultures and backgrounds, the film reminds us that the passions, heartbreaks and victories of the past have given us all a legacy that must be protected and built upon. It is a reminder to our youth of their responsibility to continue to build, as much as they can, on even the smallest instances of dignity and joy that, more often than we realise, are borne out of terrible despair. As ‘Joe’s Violin’ reaches its earned emotional climax, we are assured that such a legacy is safe in hands like Brianna’s.