Meet the Bethesda Native Who Earned an Oscar Nomination
Kahane Cooperman, a Walt Whitman graduate, directed the documentary short Joe's Violin
From left: Film subjects Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan and Brianna Perez, director/producer Kahane Cooperman and producer Raphaela Neihausen. Photo courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Kahane Cooperman was driving in New York City to her job at The Daily Show, where she’d worked as a producer for more than a decade. During that commute in 2014, she heard an ad about a radio station’s musical instrument drive for public school students. That ad would take her on a quest to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a young violinist from the nation’s poorest congressional district, and by chance, Denzel Washington.
Two years later, the documentary filmmaker who grew up in Bethesda sat nervously on the edge of her living room couch, facing the TV alongside her husband, 10-year-old daughter and co-producer Raphaela Neihausen, awaiting word from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Then she heard she was headed to the Oscars.
“You think you’re going to be cool, calm and collected, but that just does not happen,” she says of learning about the nomination at her home in New Jersey. “Every cliché reaction happens—you scream, you get a little teary-eyed, you can’t believe it, your hand covers your mouth. It’s a really surreal moment.”
Cooperman watched the awards show as a teenager, and up until even a few months ago she never thought she would be in that limelight. As a student at Walt Whitman High School, she was focused on her budding journalism career as editor of the school newspaper, The Black & White.
But it wasn’t just her journalism experience that led to her storytelling talent. She credits her mom’s “embarrassing” habit of talking to everybody she met: If Cooperman wanted ice cream, she would have to wait for her mom to finish talking to the ice cream man; if she wanted to go home from the grocery store, she had to wait for her mom to wrap up her conversation with the cashier. Her mom’s interest in people transferred to her own interactions.
That curiosity is what led Cooperman to the story that would become Joe’s Violin, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. Cooperman fell in love with the story of Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold and violinist Brianna Perez, from the Bronx. The documentary she directed and produced answered the question she had asked while in her car two years earlier: How could one musical instrument, one object, bring together two total strangers in one of the biggest cities in the world?
Brianna Perez with Joe Feingold. Photo by Bob Richman
In February, Cooperman took 14-year-old Brianna—who brought her violin—to the Oscars. During an interview session after the nominees’ luncheon, they met Denzel Washington, who asked Brianna to perform a song for him.
In Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, the big moment came when Netflix’s The White Helmets, a documentary about the war in Syria, was announced as the winner of the “Best Documentary Short.” Disappointed that she wouldn’t be taking home the golden statue, Cooperman was proud that in this divided nation her film was reaching more people and telling the story of immigrants and people from two different worlds.
At the end of her film, as an Uber picks up Joe, and Brianna waves goodbye, an American flag on the car flutters in the wind. It was the perfect ending to a story that Cooperman says sums up the American experience. “You’re passing by a million strangers, a million windows and a million doors, and you know there’s a million stories there,” she says. “And if everyone took a moment, you can probably find commonality with almost anybody.”
Watch a local filmmaker's Oscar-nominated documentary short, Joe's Violin, at joesviolin.com.