Carvalho's Journey

Throughout history Jews have been on the move, often out of necessity. Ever since the Babylonian exile, the story of the Jewish diaspora has been by definition one of journeys, as Jews were either expelled or forced by circumstance to search for opportunity elsewhere. So it’s fitting that Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership has organized its first Sunday Cinema series around the theme of Jewish journeys. All four titles are distributed by The National Center for Jewish Film, and all have postshow events curated by Spertus.

Raise the Roof
, last week’s entry, drew 200 people, an impressive turnout on Super Bowl Sunday. Directed by Yari Wolinsky, the film follows two non-Jewish Massachusetts artists, Rick and Laura Brown, who are specialists in re-creating historic architecture. They recruit ethnically diverse students and professionals and train them to craft by hand a replica of one of the hundreds of wooden synagogues that were destroyed in Poland during World War II. The result, an object of great beauty, finds a home within Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, an institution that commemorates the thousand years of Jewish life in Poland prior to the Holocaust. After the movie, Chicago residents Kayla Ginsburg and Charlie Roderick spoke about their life-changing participation in the project.

Carvalho’s Journey, which screens Sunday, February 14, is about 19th-century photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Portuguese-American Sephardic Jew from Charleston, South Carolina, which, before the Civil War, had the largest concentration of Jews in America. In 1853 he parlayed his successful daguerreotype practice into a commission as official photographer on John C. Fremont’s Fifth Westward Expedition to chart a pass through the Rocky Mountains. The transport of Carvalho’s heavy equipment added to the many hardships of the trek.

The daguerreotype is one of the earliest and most difficult forms of photography. An image is captured on a silver-coated copper plate and developed with toxic mercury vapor. Each image is one of a kind; there are no negatives, and thus no duplicate prints. In its heyday, daguerreotypes were widely copied by artists to illustrate newspapers and books, which was one reason Fremont wanted Carvalho along for the ride: to provide illustrations for a book Fremont intended to use to promote his candidacy for the U.S. presidency.

Because only one plate remains of the 300 Carvalho developed—all the rest were destroyed in a warehouse fire—director Steve Rivo turned to a contemporary expert in the medium, Robert Shlaer, to reproduce some of the works on location. Rivo, who has an extensive background producing and directing TV documentaries, including The Vice Guide to Everything, will answer questions following the screening.

Carvalho joined Fremont because he wanted to be part of a historic undertaking. In the documentary How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire, which screens on Sunday, February 28, struggling British filmmaker Daniel Edelstyn travels to the Ukraine to visit his ancestral homeland and winds up righting some of history’s wrongs. Edelstyn finds diaries and letters written by his grandmother, who grew up as the artistic, free-spirited daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman in Kiev; he learns her family was forced to leave after the Russian Revolution, when the Communists took control of their property. During his first trip to the Ukraine he is saddened that the sugar factory and vodka distillery that his family once owned have fallen on hard times since the dissolution of the USSR. Despite having no head for business (or for vodka), he impulsively decides to help the distillery prosper again. His nearly disastrous learning curve as an entrepreneur offers wry laughs, but also, oddly, hope to anyone seeking to embark on a radically new career. Following the screening, Sonat Birnecker Hart of Koval Distilleries presides over a discussion and vodka tasting.

Camera Obscura, which screens on Sunday, February 21, is the only fictional entry in the series. It’s the saga of a family of Jewish ranchers in Argentina whose lives are changed by the arrival of an itinerant portrait photographer. Spertus programmer Beth Schenker chose it to round out the series because of its connection to the subject matter of Carvalho’s Journey, and also because, she says, “I loved how this ugly-duckling bride found a way to be beautiful by how she made her home.” Plus, Schenker saw opportunities for a different kind of postshow talk, one where the style of the film’s director, Maria Victoria Menis, and aspects of Argentine culture could both be explored. For this she tapped local film critic Alejandro Riera, an expert in Latino cinema and a lively and engaging speaker who is likely to be as entertaining as the movie. 

All films screen at Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan, (312) 322-1700,, $18, $10 for members, $8 for students and alumni.