The documentary Off the Rails tells the story of Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger’s Syndrome in New York City, who has spent half of his life in jail for his habit of impersonating train conductors. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome myself, I immediately found myself draw to the film. I was also excited to talk to filmmaker Adam Irving when Off the Rails screened earlier this year at the Hot Docs film festival, where he talked heavily about the film’s connection to people with Asperger’s and how the justice system has essentially failed Darius McCollum.
Irving first became aware of Darius McCollum when he came across Darius’ Wikipedia page. “I was researching something else, about people who are obsessed with trains, and when I read the first line of his article, I was just hooked,” says Irving. “then I just kept reading and reading New York Times articles and there’s a lot of coverage on him. No one had done a documentary and I felt that Darrius’ story was worth more than a little article, so I decided to make a movie.”
While Darius McCollum’s story can be seen as lighthearted and entertaining, Irving believes that there is also a very important social message behind the film. “If you watch the movie, you will learn that people on the spectrum thrive on routine and schedules and trains, but it’s also a message that we need to change the criminal justice system, because there is clearly some problems there,” says Irving. “Darrius is an example of someone who’s non-violent, never hurt anyone, never damaged any property and yet has spent twenty years in prison, so there’s clearly something that needs to be fixed with the system. I wanted that to come through in the movie beyond this entertaining story about a quirky guy.”
Darius McCollum’s treatment by the American justice system is one of the more tragic aspects of Off the Rails, since he has spent more than half his life in prison for his obsession with change. Irving really wishes that the system change to be more accommodating to people with Asperger’s. “! lot of work needs to be done in separating regular criminals, who know the difference between right and wrong, and people who have obsessions or mental illness or addictions or some kind of grey area in between.”
There is also the obvious question about whether Darius’ race had anything to do with the length of his incarcerations, but Irving didn’t feel there was a need to address that in Off the Rails. “That is actually something that we considered to make a bigger part of the film, but what we found is that just the fact that Darrius is black and I would hope that in 2016 educated or aware people know that there is racism and that the justice system tends to give people of colour longer and harsher sentences for the exact same crimes.”
At the time of the interview, Darius McCollum was once again in jail awaiting trial, with Irving noting that Darius’ lawyer was hoping to get his some special treatment. “His lawyer is trying to get him into mental health court, where his punishment would be therapy, instead of actually going to prison for another five or ten years,” says Irving. “But so far, his lawyer’s attempts have not been successful. They’ve rejected their request to be in mental health court, but they can appeal I think one more time.”
Darius McCollum has tried to get a legitimate job with MTA, however they refuse to give him a chance and employ him, which Irving attributes to the fact that Darius’ criminal record began before he was 18. “As you may remember from the movie, he already got arrested when he was 15, for driving a train by himself, and probably got a few times after that. So, by the time he was old enough to apply to work there, they knew who he was,” says Irving. “So even though he was very confident and passionate and skilled, I just don’t think they could hire someone who had a criminal record, specifically for crimes related to transit. It would be like a bank manager hiring a bank robber to work as a teller.” Irving also notes that passengers might be concerned with a known convicted felon driving their trains, whether or not it’s legal. However, Irving thought that the MTA went a little too far when they wouldn’t even allow Darrius to volunteer at a transit museum. “That’s to me where they crossed the line,” says Irving. “He was just volunteering to teach kids about the wonders of transit and even that they wouldn’t let him have and I thought that was just mean-spirited and unnecessary.”
In many ways, it is Darius McCollum’s upbringing that has brought his life to where it is today. Irving true believes that Darius’ history of being bullied and a childhood stabbing incident was responsible for his overall disconnect from people. “I think if he wasn’t stabbed, then he wouldn’t have been afraid to go to school, he wouldn’t have been afraid of his peers, so he would have made friends with kids his own age, and he probably would have developed a network of friends, who had regular lives, instead of having his entire social network based on transit, with people that were three times his age, who weren’t probably the most appropriate people to be friends with a 10 year old,” says Irving. “I think if he hadn’t been bullied and he hadn’t been stabbed, we may not be here having this conversation, because there wouldn’t have been a movie about him, because he would have just had a normal life of a guy with Asperger’s, who just leads a normal life.”
There is also the fact that people in the black community Darius was raised in likely didn’t even know what Asperger’s Syndrome was. “When Darius committed his first crime, they just though he had behavioural problems,” says Irving. “They didn’t know that there was this thing called Asperger’s and I think that if he was in a more affluent, whiter community, instead of kicking him out of school or throwing him in jail or throwing him in an institution where he is given thorazine and is foaming at the mouth, they would have actually just said ‘alright, he’s a special kid, he’s not bad, he doesn’t have behavioral problems, he just sees the world differently, and he just need to learn to communicate more in a way that he is comfortable with.’ And I think if he wasn’t black, then there would have been a higher likelihood that would have been recognized and treated in a more humane way.”
In addition to Off the Rails, there is a biopic about Darius McCollum in development, with Julia Roberts attached to be one of the stars. Irving notes that Darius thrives on the attention and that the biopic would like fill that need once the documentary has run its course. “When people aren’t talking about him, he feels like he has to go and do something to get into the spotlight again,” says Irving. “So, I think that the Julia Roberts movie will kind of take over from mine in keeping him excited and people talking and maybe creating enough attention, so someone would intervene and help him.”
If you want to help support people with Asperger’s Syndrome, please feel free to make a donation to the Asperger’s Society of Ontario and ensure that people with Asperger’s, such as Darius McCollum and myself, get the support that they need. Off the Rails is now playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.