Nominated for: Best Documentary Feature
“It was like I was married to the MTA”, tells Darius McCollum, the subject of Adam Irving’s fascinating documentary of a man who has spent most of his adult life in prison, arrested for imitating public transport drivers in New York City. This relationship between Darius, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a tumultuous one, but one that is told in comprehensive detail by Irving, who paints a picture of a man whose innate compulsion leads him to life of struggle at the hands of the law.
Told in chronological order, the viewer is certainly drawn into Darius’ personal debacle. From a very young age, with some effective archive footage of a young Darius, his fascination with transport is evident, in particular the trains of New York’s complicated system. Irving’s documentary offers some helpful descriptions of Asperger’s from leading psychologists and social carers of Darius, ultimately highlighting how the documentary’s star is governed by routine and he is thus unable to shift his overbearing obsession with trains. His mission is simply to get passengers from A to B, safely describing himself as a “good Samaritan” to New Yorkers, yet due to not being officially trained or employed, Darius’ well-meaning life goal simply leads him to jail again and again.
“full of charm and sadness”
It is an extremely poignant and well-handled feature, successfully conveying Darius’ truly selfless intentions to turn his childhood fantasy into a reality. With the implementation of cartoon skits (including a child-like bus driver and Superman, for example) Darius’ own glorification of public transport is brought to life. The subway, we are shown, became a supportive environment away from bullies, the train drivers that taught him the ropes he considered family. The director seems to set up a juxtaposition between the friendly, sociable Brooklyn-born man and the judicial system that seems out to get him and although that sounds like a simplistic ‘good vs evil’ debate on paper, it does in fact work extremely well here. Despite the fact that he seems perfectly fit to operate the transport, Darius is repeatedly turned away by the MTA, made homeless and living off of benefits rather than earning a living doing what he loves the most, which he does seem to genuinely desire above all else. Whilst his compulsive act of ‘hijacking’ buses and trains, as it were, is indeed dangerous, I certainly felt that with adequate training Darius would be fit and able to carry out the job successfully, the conclusion that Irving may have wished to evoke from his viewers.
Alongside the cartoonish images of superheroes, the harsh realities of Darius’ life are also shown adding some emotively dark, yet suitable substance. Indeed, footage of Darius being interviewed in jail and stories of a judge who seemed to wholly uncaring about his case is reminiscent of the recent success Making A Murderer, which surely adds to the acclaim of Irving’s feature. Whilst Darius’ crimes were certainly not on a par with those supposedly carried out by Steven Avery, the treatment of Darius in jail (making him await trial for months and years, being repositioned in hostile units etc.) seems unfounded. It is truly thought-provoking stuff.
As one interviewee states, Darius is almost a Shakespearean character with a “fatal flaw”, and Irving’s footage certainly shapes Darius in this light. Darius himself states at the documentary’s end that “If I can’t ride trains, I’d rather be back in jail”, and it seems wholly saddening that he is denied the opportunity to do so, and even denied access to live at home with his parents due to his probation. It is clear that he is still a vulnerable human being that is consistently at odds with the law and the MTA, and it is of course a battle that he will never win. As a tale that sheds light on many issues including autism and the American judicial system, Irving’s documentary is certainly an interesting one full of charm and sadness, and important as it forces one to question how, and if, Darius’ (and many others) situation can be improved.
Image: Adam Irving