Off The Rails introduces us to Darius McCollum, a New York City man who has been jailed 32 times for impersonating NYC bus drivers and subway conductors. The issue: He was taught the ins and outs of the subway system from childhood by transit workers who adopted him as a sort of ‘mascot’.
By age 8, Darius memorized the entire subway system. As a boy, Darius found the subway was a safe space from school bullies. At 15, he carefully drove a packed train eight stops by himself. Since then, he has driven hundreds of vehicles, always en route and on schedule. Darius, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as an adult, never hurt anyone while in charge of any bus or subway. Nonetheless, he has spent 23 years in maximum security prison for his obsession to want to be a New York transit staff.
Adam Irving’s debut feature documentary Off the Rails is an equally interesting, frustrating, and heart-breaking story. The film is the story of a man who growing up did not receive the appropriate assistance to discern his Aperger’s diagnosis. While at the same time, the transit system staff fed his obsession with subways and buses; in a way, using his interest to their advantage. And sadly, the film shows us how the legal system continues to fail Darius time and time again.
Darius has been incarcerated about 30 times for the impersonating transit employees. While in jail, he has received minimal to no therapy to help him cope with his obsession with the transit system and understanding his Asperger’s diagnosis. The mental health workers who have worked with Darius clearly state he needs more support. Darius’ lack of understanding how his behaviour keeps getting him in trouble time and time again is telling. The lack of assistance in his case makes one wonder how has his case not been questioned by anyone in terms of how authorities have handled it thus far.
In turn, the media has sensationalized his story and added to the misunderstanding even more. In the film, director Adam Irving traces Darius’ steps using archival footage and re-enactments. Irving reveals a happy home-life and a violent classroom trauma that may have added to Darius’ inability to relate to the world.
Off the Rails is not only the story of Darius McCollum; it is the story about how the legal system prefers incarceration over treatment. It’s the story of a non-violent man with a mental-health pathology, who may end up dying in jail rather than receiving the support he needs.
Since the film’s premiere, McCollum’s story has grabbed the attention of Hollywood. The word is that a fictional feature film is in the works with Julia Roberts set to play the role of McCollum’s lawyer.
The documentary is currently screening in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema until October 30.