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Stranger Than Fiction

June 16, 2016 9:48 am0 commentsViews: 15

Off-the-Rails-1by Steve Desroches

In 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary, considered the preeminent record of the language, added the abbreviation WTF to its twenty-volume publication. Of course, the abbreviation born out of texting lingo stands for “what the f**k?” While linguistic purists bristled at the addition, let’s be honest, there are times in life when you see something so weird, so strange, so completely out of the ordinary there is nothing left to say but WTF. Each year the Provincetown International Film Festival curates a slate of films that elicit all kinds of emotions. But in particular, within the schedule of documentaries there are sparkling gems that provide a glimpse into worlds of the weird, off beat, and sometimes downright freaky that will have you slack-jawed, wide-eyed, and exclaiming, “WTF?!”

 

Off The Rails
Since Darius McCollum was 15 years old he has collectively spent 23 years in prison…and counting. His crimes? McCollum has continually impersonated a New York City transit worker driving subway trains and buses even though he has never, ever been hired by the largest public transportation system in North America. He has been arrested for it 32 times…and those are only the number of times he has been caught! His motivation? McCollum has Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum that often is characterized by substantial social and communication difficulties as well as behavioral patterns that intensely focus on repetition or can be singularly focused on one topic. McCollum is compulsively obsessed with mass transit, and more specifically the transportation system of his native New York City.

McCollum’s actions over the years have made him a bit of a celebrity in New York, especially in the page of the New York Post and the New York Daily News, which can’t resist a story about this kind of obsessive/compulsive behavior…especially one that is such a source of embarrassment to the MTA for the past 30 years. It is breathtaking to watch his level of intensity about trains and buses, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of mass transit. It should be noted that every time he has been at the helm of a bus or subway train McCollum performed the job precisely and safely, despite the fact that it isn’t even his job to begin with. But as this story unfolds Off The Rails uncovers something that doesn’t make tabloid headlines or a sound byte on the news. That this kind and gentle man, with a profound disability, one that he clearly has no control over, is repeatedly housed with some of the most violent criminals on Riker’s Island, one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

“The real heartbreak is him falling through the cracks in a justice system that doesn’t care about him or his situation,” says the films director Adam Irving.

In our times of increased discussion and debate about prison reform, mental health care, and creating a justice system based on rehabilitation rather than just punishment, Off The Rails takes all of those issues head on. Peripherally it also addresses class and racial disparity, begging the question, would McCollum, who is African-American, have received better mental health and medical care if he had been white and lived in a wealthier neighborhood in New York. Also consider that when he first drove a train as a teenager it was at the prompting of a transit worker. The worker received a three-week suspension, McCollum a felony criminal record.

“That was the turning point,” says Irving from his home in Los Angeles. “If someone could have been an advocate for him, if someone could have worked with him and focused on his gifts, maybe things would have turned out differently for him. Instead, he’s spent half of his adult life in prison. And this is a man who has never hurt anyone.”

Of course, it’s not all so simple, and Off The Rails doesn’t avoid the complexities. In this post September 11th era the ferocity with which he is prosecuted has increased both in the interest of public safety and to manage a public relations disaster for the MTA. As the film shows, McCollum has always cooperated with authorities, including telling the FBI how he manages to get past heightened security. Instead of being rewarded for his cooperation he was put in solitary confinement out of a fear that he might share the information with terrorists. Advocates for McCollum insist there must be some better way to deal with him.

“He has embarrassed them and they don’t want to acknowledge him,” Irving says of the MTA, which did not participate in the film in any way. “It makes the MTA look bad. They’ve never tried to help him, to work with him.”

The story continues to unfold and is gaining more attention not just through this documentary. This fall shooting begins on Train Man, a feature film about McCollum starring Julia Roberts as his lawyer.

 

AUTHOR-THE-JT-LEROY-STORY-1Author: The JT Leroy Story
It takes a special kind of storytelling to make a documentary about a subject where the big reveal is something most everyone already knows. In 2006 a story in The New York Times revealed that the celebrated writer JT Leroy, a gender fluid young man from West Virginia with a past that included child prostitution, drug addiction, HIV, and homelessness, actually didn’t exist and was the creation of Laura Albert, a San Francisco writer in her forties, who wrote the books and convinced her sister-in-law to portray him in public. The revelations sent shocks waves through the publishing world and beyond as Leroy’s novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were a global literary phenomenon. While always marked as fiction, they were thought to be based on a true story. It turns out as Author: The JT Leroy Story shows, there is so much more to the story. And it leaves your head spinning.

Celebrated documentarian Jeff Feurezeig, creator of such films as Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, The Real Rocky, and The Devil and Daniel Johnston, learned about the mind-blowing tale years after the fact. And after reading all the Leroy novels and corresponding newspaper and magazine stories noticed that Albert had never really told her side of it all. After being contacted by a ton of filmmakers Albert agreed to work with Feurezeig after seeing The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he says.

“It felt to me that here was this fascinating story and that there was much more to the story than what we were being told,” says Feurezeig from Paris an hour before a screening of the film at the Champs-Élysées Film Festival. “I thought ‘Now that’s a movie I would like to see.’”

Presenting a film inspired by the New Journalism of the likes of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, Feurezeig tells a Warholian tale where fact and fiction become an abstraction that, in the process, reveals much about the world the JT Leroy story comes out of and that which embraced “him.” Initially, writers and artists respond to the work seeking out this literary genius they never meet and only speak to on the phone or in correspondence. What follows is the larger grip of celebrity as Leroy becomes the “It” boy with the beautiful people scurrying to dip their toes in the cult of personality pool.

“It was a zeitgeist moment in history,” says Feurezeig. “It’s rare to see a writer become that kind of star. Readings usually attract small groups, not thousands in the way that Hollywood does. This was rare for publishing in general.”

The story of JT Leroy is truly one where truth is stranger than fiction. Albert manufactured a story so wildly compelling in real life that it rivals anything she wrote on the printed page, and this film captures it with the intensity of a wildlife documentary in the jungle. The film will be released theatrically on September 9.

 

Tickled
In this day and age where society is “post” everything, it feels as though being shocked is a dying art. If you see one film at the festival let it be Tickled, if only to prove to you that we as a species will always find new ways to be utterly and completely bizarre, sometimes aggressively so. This ferocious film from New Zealand features television journalist David Farrier, who made a name for himself in his home country by reporting on quirky human interest stories. One day he stumbles upon a video on the Internet featuring “competitive endurance tickling.” He writes to express an interest in doing a piece on the peculiar topic, and in response he receives a strangely homophobic rejection.

“Oh yeah, totally, from then it was a game-on kind of thing,” says Farrier from the Auckland International Airport awaiting a flight to Sydney for a screening of the film in Australia. “It was so homophobic and strange. It was such an unusual response.”

Of course the whole tickling bit turns out to be more fetish than sport, which is not surprising or really all that interesting on it own. It is hard to recall any story told before that unfolds in such a surprising, disturbing, hilarious, and downright freaky way. Seriously. Like Psycho meets Pink Flamingos meets Goodfellas meets Boogie Nights – except it’s real life. It’s that freaking weird. Part of the real fun of this film is the series of reveals, none of which are spoiled here. But what springs out of that initial e-mail is a two-year investigation by Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve into just what the hell is going on as the two fall deep inside an Alice In Wonderland rabbit hole where things get curioser and curioser.

“Making a film about someone who doesn’t want a film made about them is always a difficult proposition,” says Reeve from his home in New Zealand. “In a sense, too, it’s frustrating because no story is ever going to unfold as this one did ever again.”

The film has made a huge splash everywhere it has screened as it makes the film festival circuit and is set to hit theater across America the same week as the Provincetown festival. And let’s just say there are powers that be at Jane O’Brian Media, the New York-based company that produces the tickling videos, who do not want this film to succeed and occasionally appear at various screenings to make their displeasure known. On the flip, since the film’s premiere, Farrier and Reeve continually hear from many men who had experiences with “the ticklers,” not all of which were bad, but others have a more harrowing story, as seen in the film, including a recent e-mail from someone in Provincetown.

“We had to keep reminding ourselves that this is still about tickling,” says Farrier. “All of the drama and time it took. It took two years! And it’s about tickling. It took us that long to figure what it was all about.”

The 18th Provincetown International Film Festival runs now through Sunday, June 19 at various venues in Provincetown and at Wellfleet Preservation Hall in Wellfleet. For more information, tickets, and a full schedule for these and other films, visit the box office located on the 1st floor (oceanside) of the Whaler’s Wharf mall, 237 Commercial St., Provincetown, call 508.487.FILM, or visit ptownfilmfest.org.