Kahane Cooperman’s Academy Award-nominated documentary short offers a simultaneous pull on the heartstrings and a classical meditation on violin strings. The eponymous instrument is a violin donated by Joseph Feingold, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, to an instrument donation drive conducted by a radio station to help music students in cash-strapped schools in New York. The violin went to an all-girls academy in the Bronx, where it was presented to 12-year-old Brianna Perez, a gifted student from a broken home who aspires to become a music teacher.
The film offers an overview of Feingold’ tumultuous life – born in Warsaw, he studied violin as a child prior. When World War II broke out, he escaped the Nazi invasion by traveling into Soviet-occupied East Poland, but he was apprehended by the Russian military and sent to Siberia for six-and-a-half years. After the war, he reunited with his surviving family members in a displaced persons camp in Germany. While awaiting permission to emigrate to the U.S., he acquired a violin in a flea market and resumed his love of music. In the U.S., he settled in New York, established a career as an architect and started a family. He donated the violin after ill health prevented him from playing.
Perez’s brief life was shaped by the collapse of her parents’ marriage – she speaks of her father living somewhere across town, but her mother confides that the girl still has problems coping with this disruption in her domestic world. Her teachers view the youngster as a prize student, hence her receipt of Feingold’s violin – which is presented in a special ceremony in front of the school. (The instrument will remain in the school after Perez graduates, to be assigned to another top student.) Perez is described as living in the “nation’s poorest congressional district,” but the struggles faced by her mother in raising the child in this environment are never explored.
The film witnesses a meeting between Feingold and Perez, with the latter performing a solo piece for the appreciative elder. Needless to say, it is impossible to view this sequence without emotion. Yes, “Joe’s Violin” is somewhat manipulative in forcing a highly sentimental story out of a simple instrument donation – and Feingold often gives the impression of being uncomfortable in the spotlight. But the cross-generational, multiracial bonding between Feingold and Perez is sincere and the resulting portrait of their unlikely union is heartwarming.