If there's any likelihood amid the Oscar race, it's that Joe's Violin -- a modest, 24-minute film nominated for documentary short subject -- will leave viewers in tears. The credit for the high-emotion film about a Holocaust survivor and an inner-city school girl goes to many, though one key player is Peter Kenney, the longtime Philadelphia ad-agency partner who is the film's executive producer.
"A win would be nice, but the nomination validated the power of the story," he said last week, prior to a flurry of Joe's Violin-related activities that included an SRO-only New York City screening, plus flying to Los Angeles with his wife for Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, along with seven others associated with the film.
His involvement, like everyone else's, began after Kahane Cooperman -- the film's director and a former producing executive from Jon Stewart's The Daily Show -- was stuck in New York City traffic and heard a snippet on WQXR-FM radio about 91-year-old architect Joe Feingold, a Poland-born Holocaust survivor. Feingold had acquired a violin in 1947 while in a displaced person's camp in Germany and was donating it to 12-year-old Bronx schoolgirl Brianna Perez.
Feingold and Perez would later bond over "Solveig's Song" from Grieg's Peer Gynt -- which Feingold's mother had referenced in a letter when she and her son had been separated by the war. Though the song is a wistful expression of hope, mother and son were never reunited. She died in Europe; he survived in a Russian camp in Siberia.
Cooperman set out to make a documentary, funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
Kenney, now 56 and a partner in the DiD Agency, had stayed in touch with Cooperman after their student days at Columbia University (both had MFAs in film, graduating in 1991). When he learned of the project, he realized that her Kickstarter campaign would take too long to raise the funds, especially because Cooperman and producer Raphaela Neihausen wanted to shoot the story as it was unfolding with Feingold and Perez coming to know each other.
That was two years ago. "I helped out with resources and money" -- roughly $15,000 was necessary to complete the shooting -- "but mostly, I was a cheerleader," Kenney said.
He also saw the project progress from a larger documentary to one that better told its story as a short subject. "There's no format to fit into," he says. "It gives you freedom and courage."
The big question at the end of the editing was how to get the film out there. "The Oscar was not in the business plan," Kenney said. "The plan was to show it to a few hundred people in film festivals. Maybe if we generated the right word of mouth, we could get a distributor." The film's website, www.joesviolin.com, lists 15 citations including the Tribeca Film Festival "special selection" and the "audience award winner" at the Nantucket Film Festival.
The film was shown for a week in July to qualify for the Academy Awards. Other screenings followed in minifestivals of short subjects, including a recent run at Philadelphia's Ritz 5 and inclusion in a showing of Oscar-nominated shorts Friday to March 2 at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville.
It's also available on video.newyorker.com, though Kenney believes that, for all of its intimacy, the film's impact is far greater on the large screen. Philadelphians will get a chance for that experience when Joe's Violin closes the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival's CineMondays series May 8 at the Kimmel Center. "Hopefully," he said, "we'll bring the Oscar with us."
The lessons from Kenney's end of the experience might seem to be mostly logistical, about how to get one's work out before the public. Instead, his takeaway has been a bit more rich. "What I learned in this adventure ... is that emotion is the most important currency in any story."
Cooperman, he said, "had the emotional spark when she heard Joe's voice on the radio. I had the emotional spark when I heard her describe the story. Audiences are given an emotional jolt when they see the film. Stories only have power if they can generate that kind of emotion."