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November 02, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Off the Rails

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Adam Irving - 2016
The Film Collaborative

Off the Rails was brought to my attention as an audience favorite at the Hot Docs Documentary Festival last May. And it's easy to see why this film has been popular, and why the story has not only inspired a play, but an announced dramatic film film version. Darius McCollum is a big, exceedingly friendly guy, almost always seen with a smile. His story is one where a very unique flaw goes against inflexible and unimaginative government bureaucracies.

Even as a youth, the Brooklyn native has been obsessed with New York City's mass transit system, going as far as memorizing every route for every train. Friendship with those who operated the subways eventually led to McCollum first learning how to operate a train and later unofficially substituting for a driver at age 15. A report by a passenger resulted in McCollum's first arrest. McCollum's criminal career, if one could call it that, consisted of impersonating various New York City transit personnel, "working" in some capacity, and in some cases operating a bus. The kicker is that what have been described as "joy rides" were actually nothing of the sort as most of us would understand that term. When impersonating a bus driver, McCollum would drive the bus route, stopping to pick up passengers at the designated locations.

It was only much later that McCollum had be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome which explains his particular obsessiveness. McCollum's psychological needs have been addressed minimally at best, untreated and ignored at worst. And due to his repeated arrests, McCollum has been imprisoned far longer and with undue harshness by a criminal justice system that is too bound up in the letter of the law to find a way to allow McCollum to use his knowledge and abilities legally. Especially in light of various news reports where judges find extenuating circumstances not to punish convicted rapists makes the imprisonment of McCollum all the more infuriating. And in spite it all, Darius McCollum remains cheerful when speaking to the camera.

Adam Irving's documentary is a combination of dramatic reenactments, talking heads and documentary footage. What also makes the story incredible is that the unanticipated conclusion took place while Irving was making his film. McCollum's last arrest was just a year ago, November 11, 2015, when he returned to New York City, finding life with his mother in Winston-Salem, North Carolina too quiet. Burning his collection of uniforms and related equipment proved not enough, with McCollum returning to the scene of his "crimes", driving a Greyhound bus from the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan.

Off the Rails is Adam Irving's directorial debut, following stints as a camera operator on a couple "reality" television series, and production support on other documentaries. In this film, truth is far stranger than fiction. After making headlines in New York City newspapers, a wider audience should find the story of Darius McCollum totally absorbing.

Posted by peter at November 2, 2016 09:30 AM