“Off the Rails” at Kew Festival of Cinema (By Wendy Moscow)

kew gardens festival of cinema

August 11, 2017.  “Off the Rails,” a documentary feature shown at the Kew Gardens Film Festival, is an extraordinarily compelling film about a man with a compulsion. Darius McCollum, now in his 50’s, has been obsessed with the MTA subway and bus system since he was 15. Dubbed a “train in the neck” by a local reporter, he has been imprisoned 32 times, more than half his life, for impersonating train operators, bus drivers, and even a superintendent! But, the film asks, does McCollum’s Asperger’s Syndrome (which is characterized by an intense interest in one subject, often leading to obsessive behavior), exempt him from responsibility for his criminal acts? Is prison an appropriate punishment for someone with a neurological disability? Ironically, though the MTA refuses to hire him, because he “doesn’t follow the rules,” he seems to know the rules and the workings of the transit system better than just about anyone else. He is even called upon by the MTA, while in prison lock-down (!), to reveal possible vulnerabilities within the system.

There is a surprising amount of humor in the film, the above being a poignant example. When MTA employees go on strike, McCollum joins the picket line, shouting, “No contract, no peace,” and is such an effective advocate on behalf of the workers that someone asks if he’d like to be a union rep. With a wry smile for the camera, he describes the reaction of the disappointed and disbelieving employee when he (McCollum) tells him that he was not actually a union member. Director Adam Irving makes effective use of animation in this and other scenes that helps to convey the inner life of this troubled but extremely likable man. When McCollum is driving a hijacked train or bus, he becomes Superman – and though he’s not faster than a speeding bullet, he fancies himself a man with a profound purpose who is making the lives of his serendipitous passengers a little happier than they would have been. Several animated sequences throughout the film show the protagonist in Superman garb, alternately ecstatic (when he’s driving) and dejected (after he has, yet again, been caught.)

The director also employs non-sensationalistic reenactments that give the viewer a “you are there” feeling, and expand our empathy for Mr. McCollum, which Mr. Irving clearly has in abundance. This is a film with a clear point of view. And, when, in a brilliant bit of editing, we see a montage of mugshots that span the course of decades, we viscerally sense the futility of McCollum’s years of imprisonment.

This film is both an engrossing character study and a plea for more humane and appropriate treatment for folks with Asperger’s who act out obsessively – committing what are, arguably, victimless crimes. Let’s hope that the “powers that be” are watching.

The screening venues for the “Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema” include the Kew Gardens Cinemas, the only art movie house in Queens (8105 Lefferts Blvd. In Kew Gardens), and the Queens Museum, Flushing Meadow Corona Park, Corona New York.

For further information visit http://www.KewGardensFestivalofCinema.com.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 12, 2017, in Documentary, Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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