‘Off the Rails’: Documentary explores true story of Darius McCollum

The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival this Sunday presents “Off The Rails” for the fifth film in this year’s Winter Screening Series. Since January, MNFF has showed one film a month that focuses on prominent work by first and second time filmmakers; the series concludes with the sixth and final film in May.
“Off The Rails,” directed by Adam Irving, is “a riveting documentary that tells the incredible true story of Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger’s syndrome whose overwhelming love and comprehensive knowledge of transit has landed him in jail 32 times for the criminal impersonation of NYC subway drivers, conductors, bus drivers, token booth clerks and track repairmen,” reads the Winter Screening Series promo for this film. “Currently incarcerated, yet again, Mr. McCollum puts in sharp focus the line between folk hero benevolence and persistently risking the public’s safety.”
What makes this screening extra special, is that it will be introduced by Jude Domski, Bristol-area native and close friend of McCollum.
“We are so pleased to have Jude Domski as part of this event,” noted Lloyd Komesar, MNFF producer. “Her longtime friendship with Darius McCollum, the central figure in ‘Off The Rails,’ provides our audience a level of insight into the film that is very special. We have tried throughout this year’s Winter Screening Series to have local people introduce our films and create connections to the work. Jude’s connection to Darius is a particularly distinctive example of how this process can personalize an event.”   Darius McCollum and Jude Domski stand together one day in 2014 when he was out of jail.
Photo / Matthew Murphy
McCollum and Domski first connected in the early 2000s, when Domski was working as a theater director for Paperhat Productions Ensemble in New York City. “I was looking for a story to write a play about,” Domski recalled in an interview last week. She remembered McCollum’s story from when she was an adolescent, and so she wrote to him in jail. “I wrote to him and said I’d like to meet him and talk about the possibility to write his story.”
She developed the script with the help of Paperhat, her own research and letters she exchanged with McCollum. “The letters became the structural thread to tell his story,” she said. The end result: “Boy Steals Train.”
“I conceived and directed the play, but it was a collaborative effort of collaging and editing a bunch of different sources,” said Domski, who doesn’t claim the title of playwright for this piece.
They took the play to Edinburgh, Scotland, where it was “enormously successful,” said Domski. “Mostly because of Darius’ incredible story.” The BBC took it up as a radio play, and then the script went dormant as Domski’s life went off in a different direction.
“My feeling at the time, even when I first approached him, was that I wanted to tell this story and do the play, but I also had a commitment to him; to become his friend and keep in touch,” she said. For the past 15 years or so, Domski and McCollum share phone calls, visits and letters. “The project was so long ago,” said Domski, who now lives in South Burlington and keeps a small studio in Burlington. “He’s my friend.”
In those 15 years, Domski said she was contacted by many documentary filmmakers who wanted to do something with the story.
“For various reasons those didn’t materialize,” she said. “But Adam had the resources and ambition to come through. He tracked me down, contacted me to get Darius’ info, and went off to make the film.
“It did really well on the festival circuit,” Domski continued. “The story is so fascinating, but Adam did a great job. The cinematography is really beautiful. And they had a great team of people doing the graphics and animated section… It’s been fun to see his story get national attention; at first it was a little hard for me because it had been such a pet project for me and an opus from my theater days. Sure, there was a little bit of a twinge to not be able to take it out to the limelight in the theater, but ultimately I’m glad people know his story and that it’s told sympathetically and with passion… Yet, after all this time, he’s still in jail and it doesn’t look like the outcome will change.”
Since his first offense, McCollum has been in and out of prison for over three decades. “He’s a classic recidivist,” said Domski. “He cycles through and cycles through again. Sometimes he’s out for a few months or few years and then he’s back in.”
What’s kept Domski connected to McCollum through all these repeat offenses?
“Darius is a really lovely person,” she said. “The thing that keeps coming back to me is how he is so affable and charming, and seemingly normal in this absurd situation… the story feels like it transcends the specifics; it’s about a man passionate about something that is forbidden. That has such an epic scale to it.”
From a different angle, Domski remains active with McCollum and his story in hopes of setting legal precedents. In McCollum’s experience so far, Domski said it has been a struggle to have his Asperger’s fully recognized as a factor. “It’s amazing that there’s still this level of ignorance in our penal system. Darius’ best case scenario ?which is not likely ?but he could be one of those cases that sets precedents for others. We can hope.”
Catch “Off The Rails” and Domski’s introduction this Sunday at noon, in Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. Tickets are $12. Call (802) 382-9222 or visit www.townhalltheater.org for more info. 

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