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'Citizen filmmaker': Chris Farina's subjects have always been close to home

Over the years, the ranks of The Daily Progress’ Distinguished Dozen honorees have swelled with unsung heroes. It’s fitting, then, that a Charlottesville filmmaker dedicated to putting his community’s unsung heroes in the spotlight takes his place among them this year.

Chris Farina, the artist behind “World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements,” “West Main Street” and “A Bridge to Life: The Bridge Ministry,” said he started creating films “during my last year at the University of Virginia, in 1982. This was in Baltimore, where I grew up. I was interested in other people’s stories.”

It’s easy for young filmmakers to get dazzled by dreams of Hollywood ballyhoo, red-carpet recognition and heaps of praise. Farina ended up on a different, and ultimately fulfilling, path because he paid attention to the stories unfolding around him.

“I’m always interested in unsung heroes,” Farina told The Daily Progress. “There are so many people who do good things for others. You can walk up and down the street and see people on the front porch as neighbors.”

Farina, founder of Rosalia Films, is invested in the community as a husband and father of two and the owner of the Corner Parking Lot since 1986, but his passion for travel predates his start as a filmmaker.

“Before that, I was a hitchhiker. I hitched around the country and in Europe,” he said. “I was always interested in other people’s stories.”

The road was where it began. Farina’s first award-winning film, “Route 40,” focused on Pulaski Highway, which is a block away from where Farina grew up.

His focus, however, never strayed far from the neighbors themselves. Farina remembered the joy of getting to know longtime Charlottesville resident Rebecca McGinness, who died in 2000 at age 107. McGinness was a teacher, community leader and keen observer of changes in Charlottesville and the world. The two bonded over a shared love of the city and its people.

“She goes into the kitchen and brings a tray with lemonade,” Farina said. “This is so old school, like a grandmother.”

Documenting what is, and what can be, is a calling. It also is a responsibility. Colleagues see Farina as an exemplar.

“There’s a phrase I like that Yo-Yo Ma uses — citizen artist — that the citizen has more of a role in the community than to create art,” filmmaker, neighbor and friend Paul Wagner told The Daily Progress. “Chris is more than a filmmaker; he is a citizen filmmaker. It’s so important, so laudable, when you are doing the work of making it a more humane place, a more just place.”

The Academy Award winner paused.

“He doesn’t do it by scolding us. He does it by inspiring us,” Wagner said. “We have a responsibility to more than our art. We have a responsibility to our communities.”

Wagner said Farina’s films capture a precious sense of trust.

“His films always do the work of a citizen filmmaker — wonderful films artistically, but having a much broader role in our community,” Wagner said. “His humane intentions actually make him a better filmmaker.”

“The whole key of documentary filmmaking is to form a whole level of trust. You can’t get an authentic film unless the person in front of the camera trusts the person behind the camera. If you don’t have the trust of the person in front of the camera, it’s going to fail. You can call it a talent, but it’s more than a talent. It’s a character trait, in Chris’ example.”

Wagner, who met Farina soon after moving to town in 1991, also called his colleague “an extraordinary listener. He’s very articulate about what he wants. Mostly, he has the wisdom to keep his mouth shut and listen. He really draws people out that way.”

That trait gives Farina an edge, Wagner said.

“The filmmaking skill comes out in the editing. You may shoot 100 hours for a one-hour film,” Wagner said. “He’s a smart guy and a smart filmmaker, so he has the material to work with. You don’t have to push people. Relax. Let them relax. Then go look for the jewels and gather them.”

Farina’s ability to listen and gain trust also helps put film subjects at ease with one another, and that’s where a different kind of magic happens. Community also is built through everyday moments of recognizing each other as civic kin and fellow travelers who have a stake in each other’s well-being and success.

While filming connections made between students of Russian literature both inside and outside the juvenile justice system for “Seats at the Table,” Farina realized that “it’s a beautiful thing to have that effect on each other,” he said. “It was the first time I literally had to hide my tears.”

Farina started feeling weak and short of breath in the fall of 2022. He ended up spending two months at University of Virginia Medical Center, where he learned he had respiratory-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

When news spread about Farina’s diagnosis, friends and fans organized the Farina Film Fest. Presented on Nov. 5 at the Paramount Theater, the event was a fundraiser for Farina’s wife, Jacqueline, his primary caregiver, and his children, college students Matthew and Ella. The pay-what-you can fundraiser drew more than 600 attendees and brought in donations toward his full-time medical care.

The evening was filled with clips from each of Farina’s film projects — “Route 40,” “West Main Street,” “World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements,” “Remembering Normandy,” “Stars Over the Sea,” “Ricardo Idagi: Making Spirit Visible,” “Coloring the Landscape,” “Holistic Life Foundation: Breathing Love into a Community,” “Seats at the Table” and “A Bridge to Life: The Bridge Ministry.”

Those who know Farina well can spot in his work his dedication to capturing moments in Charlottesville life that otherwise might have gone overlooked or underappreciated, putting them in the context of history and community.

“Chris Farina is a local treasure, and the impacts of his filmmaking will be felt in perpetuity. What separates Chris from other Charlottesville filmmakers is his consistent focus on subjects close to home, as well as his intentional commitment to the everyday heroes among us,” friend Lori Shinseki, who organized the Farina Film Festival, wrote to The Daily Progress. “When you examine Chris’s body of work in its entirety, what you see is a beautiful, hopeful love letter to Charlottesville — a tribute to the unsung luminaries who dedicate their lives to making the world a better place.

“Chris’s art reflects who he is as a person — grounded, unpretentious, hopeful, positive, uncomplaining, hard-working, loving and inclusive. His gift to all of us is a permanent record of the unforgettable people who have lifted our community in ways we may not even understand. Like his film subjects, Chris Farina has injected love and kindness into our local aura not only via filmmaking, but through TedX and the Corner Parking Lot. Wherever he goes, Chris generates connection and spreads joy and beauty, which we so desperately need.”

Fellow filmmakers and longtime friends aren’t the only ones who recognize the gifts that set Farina’s films apart. Fans invariably get it.

“We have been honored to screen a number of Chris Farina’s films over the years at the Virginia Film Festival. Chris’s own kindness as a person shines through in the treatment of his films and the people in them,” Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival, wrote to The Daily Progress. “He has been able to capture through his lens the kindness and remarkable achievements of others, celebrating their humanity while revealing his own.”

Farina’s advice to aspiring filmmakers is to “be a better fundraiser than I am,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s really about listening and observing and allowing. It’s what you learn from others, and not going in saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’

“It lifts me. I’m very blessed.”


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