How a Donated Violin Led Brianna Perez to an Unlikely Friendship With a Holocaust Survivor & an Oscar-Nominated Doc

Despite its title, Kahane Cooperman film, Joe’s Violin, is not really about that stringed instrument. Instead, it tells the story of how Joseph Feingold, a Holocaust survivor, first acquired his violin while at a displaced-person’s camp and how, now settled here in the U.S. all these years later, came to donate it to a school in the Bronx as part of a drive to stock New York City schools with musical instruments. It’s there where “Joe’s violin” was presented to Brianna Perez, a Bronx native whose family hails from the Dominican Republic. The affecting short doc is now up for an Academy Award and its timely story about compassion, family, and the power of music to heal is sure to resonate with audiences around the world.

Even from the various scenes of Brianna in the film, you get a sense that she’s quite mature for her age. When showing her room to Cooperman, she tells the camera that during her childhood, she was obsessed with Tinkerbell: “She’s like an independent, hard-working fairy,” she explains. “And she was chosen for something special. And I was chosen for something special too.” That mix of childlike wonder and thoughtful observation surprise her still. Looking back at what she’d shared on camera, she told Remezcla, she was taken aback by how grown up she sounded—and that was when she was merely twelve years old.

“I want to teach kids that music will always be a part of them. That it’s important.”

Now 14, Brianna is currently attending a performing arts high school in Manhattan with dreams of becoming a music teacher. Just as the violin helped her cope with her parents’ divorce—“the violin was there for me when no one else was”—she hopes to show kids how music can help them stay out of trouble. “That there are ways you can express yourself and have other people admire you while enjoying what you do. I want to teach kids that music will always be a part of them. That it’s important.” But it’s her alternate career choices which show you how ambitious this soft-spoken girl really is. If not a music teacher, she’d also enjoy becoming a forensic anthropologist or a NASA engineer. You can see why her teacher breaks into tears while presenting her with Joseph’s violin, telling her schoolmates that she has no doubts that Brianna will cherish the violin just as he had.

In the film you see her playing “Solveig’s Song” by Edvard Grieg, which Joseph’s mother had quoted to him in a letter sent from the camp she never did manage to escape. “I thought about how important that would have been to me if I was in his shoes and that was my mother we were talking about. Because just like him I’m extremely close to my mom and I know at one point in his life he was too.” Learning about Joseph’s story led her to want to learn even more about the history of the Holocaust, a story that seems all the more urgent and necessary in our current political climate. Wisely, the doc doesn’t lean too heavily on the fact that Joseph’s and Brianna’s stories exemplify the very best version of a diverse American dream. But you can’t help but connect Joseph’s journey from a displaced person’s camp in Germany to America, or Brianna’s ability to thrive while going to school in the poorest congressional district in the nation, to the headlines that greet us every day in 2017.

When she saw the final film put together, she was in tears. “Like I couldn’t believe that it all happened—I still can’t. I couldn’t believe that we were actually showing this. That this is being shown and other people are watching it! And other people are going to know part of my story and part of Joseph’s story. And part of our story together.” She remains immensely proud of Joe’s Violin and grateful that she got to be a part of it.

“Looking back at it, it provided so many opportunities to me and opened so many windows for me. I’m very grateful. I’m glad to have this weird experience happen to me. Like I said in the doc, this entire thing is an adventure, and I’ve always wanted an adventure.”

Check out Kahane Cooperman’s Academy Award-nominated short film below.