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Community event will celebrate, support local filmmaker after ALS diagnosis

Filmmaker Chris Farina on set
Will May
Filmmaker Chris Farina takes a break on the set of "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements."

In fall 2022, Charlottesville filmmaker Chris Farina was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

To celebrate his award-winning work and raise funds to help with his medical expenses, the Farina Film Fest has been scheduled for Nov. 5 at The Paramount Theater. The event, sponsored by UVA Arts, will feature clips from his eight films with introductions from speakers connected to each feature.

Farina — a beloved community member, husband and father — is also well-known as the owner of the Corner Parking Lot and co-creator and co-producer of TEDxCharlottesville.

Recently, Terri Allard sat down with Farina and his wife, Jacqueline Dugery, to talk about his health, his career, the perks of running a parking lot and their hopes for Charlottesville’s future.

Note: The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Terri Allard: What inspired you to go into documentary filmmaking?

Chris Farina: I've always liked listening to other people's stories. Before I started making films, I hitchhiked around the country, and I loved listening to stories of people.

The other thing was the first film I made, which was Route 40. I was in a bar. I grew up a block away from the street. A bunch of guys from the neighborhood were there. Just being in that bar, I was looking around and I thought, "Oh, this would be a great closing scene [for] a film about this area." And that's really where I came up with the first idea of a film.

I had a teacher at UVA. Ellen McWhirter was her name. She was in the English department, but she taught film. It wasn't filmmaking — it was more like watching films like reading books. The start of Route 40 was in my last class with her. It was literally a class project that kept me from having to write a paper.

Was there a time that you first recall falling in love with films?

CF: Oh, yeah, back in … well, forever. Not in terms of filmmaking, but watching.

My partner on Route 40 and West Main Street was Reid Oechslin. He was a manager at Ann Porotti's Vinegar Hill Theater. Even as a freshman, I remember walking down to Vinegar Hill the first time to see Grapes of Wrath. I went to so many movies there. The emotional connection and inspiration of films really meant a lot to me.

I'm going to pivot a little here. You've owned and run the Corner Parking Lot near UVA since 1986, right? What inspired you to buy a parking lot?

CF: Well, I didn't buy it. I just own the business. I actually started working there off and on in '83 when Macado’s used to run it.

Why did you decide to take over the business?

CF: I guess it was the independence. I was able to try to make films at the same time. I mean, it was solid. It’s not like I went to college with the idea that I was going to run a parking lot. But it just fell into my hands.

And I like being my own boss in a lot of ways. It allowed me to do a lot of things. Before children and everything, I did a lot of traveling. That was always really important to me.

Jacqueline Dugery: You were so young, and I think it gave you that taste of running your own business. But the other thing, I guess, was Chris had graduated from UVA and gone to Baltimore to take a job in city government and would come back to work on Route 40.

CF: That’s what brought me back to Charlottesville, because Reid was here. And then there was a great filmmaker here — Ross Spears — and he let us use his editing machine to work on Route 40. So, we would film in Baltimore and then come back and work on it for over a couple of years.

And you two had been in school together at UVA, right?

CF: Yeah, Reid was key because he had technical skills. He was the one that did the camera and all that, and really was the editor as well. So, I would not have been a filmmaker if I hadn't had that friendship with Reid.

When did you come into the picture, Jacqueline?

JD: I came into the picture in 1988 as an undergrad. I was at a party; a documentary celebration for some undergrads who lived in the apartment above me. Well, you would really like me to tell the story that the way we actually met was I was using the restroom. Someone did not knock on the bathroom door. And that was Chris Farina.

All: [Laughing]

JD: I screamed bloody murder, and then laid eyes on this guy and thought, “Maybe I better stand and guard the door for him [until] after he finishes.”

And, I have to say, as someone who didn't grow up watching a ton of documentaries, it's been great to be exposed to the stories that you can tell and telling them in a compelling way. So, it's been a joy to be married to someone who's exposed me to this kind of art.

Circling back to the parking lot. It has a reputation: A documentary was made about it. For folks who don't know, describe this place and why it has been so special to so many people all these years.

CF: I've had so many good friends as employees there. I've always been open to guys who were musicians and artists or grad students. They had more important things to do, and the parking lot was a place to chill and bring in some money for themselves. And I've always liked being part of their lives.

I got along with so many people, even customers, and became friends. It's always been about getting along — relationships with other people — that made the job great.

JD: I think you've always had really special relationships with the merchants.

CF: Oh, sure. Even after the first part of COVID, the one joy in life was working in the parking lot where I could actually talk to people.

It's not easy being an independent filmmaker. Why have you stayed with it all these years?

CF: It's more like a personal inspiration. Money's always been the issue. Most of them [the films] were always debt ridden. And some only got replaced by the debt after the film, and that's only happened a couple of times.

But...I feel so lucky and uplifted by the people that I've been able to shine a light on. Just for me, personally, I've been really inspired by many of the people that I've filmed.

Also, I've always had this kind of perspective, this idea of shining a light on people that don't get community attention. I'm not interested in celebrities; I'm interested in people that do really good work for their community.

What else goes into decision making when you choose your film topics and themes?

CF: Again, I've always liked the connections with the individuals themselves. Even in Seats at the Table, when I first observed...

JD: The class, the Books Behind Bars class...

CF: ...down in the juvenile facility, and I was so moved by the relationships between the UVA students and the residents of the correctional center. To me, that was such a lesson that I believe in, which I feel like — in these days — people are pretty much separated by their own groups. And yet, it's so important to bring people together.

Your film, World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements, was a pivotal project for both of you. Talk about the film and the roles you played in supporting the project.

CF: Well, when I first observed it, it was so obvious, the huge relationship that John [Hunter] had with the students and, that by itself, I was like, “Oh, that needs to be captured” because it's so inspiring to see a teacher give to his students that sense of community input.

John, at that point, was just a local teacher. And yet, it kind of bloomed. Particularly when we sent the trailer to TED. And they, from seeing the trailer, called John and invited him to speak to the national TED conference. And that really gave it more attention.

The film was successful. [It] premiered at South by Southwest and all that. But the connection at TED really presented John around the world.

And then John — after so many years — formed his own foundation. John is such a dear friend, so I was always part of it.

Children playing the World Peace Game
Will May
John Hunter, Educator and Founder of the World Peace Game, worked with children at Venable Elementary School during the filming of "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements."

For those who don't know, what is the World Peace Game?

JD: The World Peace Game is a geopolitical simulation that challenges children as young as 10 to immerse themselves in a series of global crises all presented on a four-tiered plexiglass board and children assume roles for various positions such as prime ministers of fictional countries and the World Bank.

They're presented with every crisis that you can imagine we see in our world today. Through the lens of this game, children are really challenged to collaborate, to problem solve, to work together with the idea of creating, quote “world peace” and solving crises, ranging from rogue armies to environmental degradation.

CF: But the collaboration is key to them solving the problems.

JD: I was able to join the foundation and support John in the endeavor of taking the game from Miami, Florida to Tokyo, to Australia, to some really wonderful places around the globe.

CF: The game has gone to, I think, over 40 countries now. And just recently, back in August, it was taught in Israel and brought together Palestinian and Israeli children to play the game. Like, that just happened, which is incredible.

JD: It was on the public television broadcast across the country and 80%...

CF: ...95%

JD: ...of the U.S. public television stations picked up [the film].

Is there something you're especially proud of that came about as a direct result of one of your films?

CF: Well, I like seeing people cry.

All: [Laughing]

CF: The idea of being able to pass along the emotion that I feel to others is something that's always really meant a lot to me.

JD: Documentary [film] allows you to share the story in such an impactful way. And I think that sort of has been an ongoing motivation for you [Chris]: that the more people, the more screenings, the more public television shows featuring some of these stories just means that these stories that are so inspiring to Chris are shared with others.

Talk about your hopes for A Bridge To Life: The Bridge Ministry.

CF: First off, it was just common sense how they try to change and save the lives of men dealing with addiction issues. And the way they do it is such a positive alternative to throwing somebody in jail. And part of it is the love and the compassion and the connection they show to the guys who are there.

Part of the two parts of the mission: one is to really shine a light on their work, so that they get more support, and two is to teach the lessons that they have exhibited to other communities around the country, so that more men will be changed through this kind of work.

That also reminds me of your role as co-creator and co-producer of TEDxCharlottesville. There's a parallel there. Talk about why that work was so important to you.

CF: That was so fun. I just think that was something to give back to the Charlottesville community: to inspire and to move and to give a real sense of hope that we should be helping ourselves, working together in order to positively change our lives.

And I loved the colleagues that I had, too, so it was really a positive experience.

What do people say about him behind his back, [Jacqueline]?

JD: Everyone remembers Chris with a smile on his face all the time. I think that's the first thing that comes to mind.

And I think the thing I often hear [about] is Chris' willingness and obvious enjoyment in listening to others tell their stories. And for every minute that he spent in the parking lot listening to someone tell their stories...

I think Chris' generosity and care for this community is part of his business. And it's part of his film[making]. And it's part of his role as a father and a husband.

And I think his inspiration and his hopefulness is embedded in everything. I think that carries through to even his diagnosis.

You were diagnosed in October 2022 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

CF: Yeah

How are you and your family doing?

JD: You mean, after the bomb exploded? It's a challenge, obviously, to be hit with a disease that wreaks havoc on your body. But I think Chris is so fortunate to be able to continue his work.

He had filmed much of The Bridge Ministry while very, very, very sick — undiagnosed, but very sick. And that's a miracle, frankly.

Working with a wonderful editor [Bill Reifenberger] has allowed Chris to continue The Bridge Ministry. His support and determination to work with Chris to continue doing something that is so important to both of them has been a blessing.

We take it one day at a time.

Screening of The Holistic Life Foundation: breathing love into a community
Stephanie Bolton
Dugery and Farina’s children Matthew and Ella, pictured here at the Virginia Film Festival screening of "The Holistic Life Foundation: Breathing Love into a Community," are now students at UVA.

CF: I feel very fortunate that I live in a community where UVA hospital is. They were great. But, you know, medical issues are not simple. Typically, with the costs and stuff, it adds to [the] things that we have to deal with.

JD: This sounds pollyannish, but I think that's why the Paramount event is really exciting for us because it's a chance to be reminded of everything we've been talking about, which is Chris' films over the years, the stories he's been able to tell, the lights he’s been able to shine on individuals.

And it gives your community an opportunity to support you now and help with your care going forward, so that you can keep doing what you're doing, and so that your family can be healthy.

JD: We're working really hard for Chris to be able to stay at home and be healthy. Chris is on a ventilator full-time and, therefore, requires 24/7 care.

So, part of what the November 5th event will do is provide some resources — that we didn't plan for — to be able to keep Chris at home and also keep him able to do the things he wants to do, which involves getting a van so that he can get out.

So, we're super appreciative of the opportunity that the event presents for people who are able to support that part of our life right now.

And to be together. A lot of people are going to want to be with you.

CF: It's funny; one of the great reminders of the dilemma we're dealing with is how many good friends I have, you know. It is a reminder of how lucky and blessed my life has been, so I feel really positive when I think back on my life. This is a weird thing, crisis to deal with — but it also makes you reflect, and I feel very thankful, in many ways.

Originally, you were planning to go back to Baltimore — you never had any plans to stay in Charlottesville. Yet, you stayed, and you raised your children here. You have seen Charlottesville go through many changes. What are your hopes for our community for the future?

CF: That's a tough one. I mean, I kind of feel like we need to preserve the people that are here, and not just push them out through gentrification and through raising the cost of living in Charlottesville. We should protect the people that go back in generations and make sure to preserve their connection to Charlottesville.

JD: It's preserving that small town feel despite, you know, some pressures of growth. We know things change, but keeping those connections and remembering who lives next door and who lives down the street and that everyone does have a story.

And maybe that's the beauty of Chris' work and the reminder it gives us.

Information about Farina’s films can be found on the Rosalia Films website.

The Farina Film Fest takes place at The Paramount Theater on Saturday, Nov. 5.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with Farina’s medical expenses.