The Boston Jewish Film Festival’s annual ReelAbilities Film Festival kicks off its seventh year on Wednesday, March 21, and continues through Thursday, March 29, with screenings of various films throughout the Greater Boston area. Founded in 2007 at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, the festival presents award-winning films and documentaries across the country that uniquely focus on people with disabilities. This year’s offerings highlight autism, ALS, mental health issues and Down syndrome. Festival sponsors include the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation.

The 2018 festival opens with “Sanctuary,” a beguiling tragicomedy from Ireland that follows the adventures of nine young adults with Down syndrome on a field trip to the movies. From the beginning, this group outing to Galway is both sweetly memorable and sadly doomed. Tom, the group’s sympathetic yet inept chaperone, allows things to run amok. Most of his charges leave the theater to wander into the adjacent mall or stroll down the street to a pub.

At the center of the film is the budding relationship between Sophie and Larry. The two are in love. Sophie has epilepsy and lives in a group home. Larry has Down syndrome and lives with his mother. Larry has achieved the enviable goal of regular, steady employment, something that eludes his peers.

Sophie and Larry want to rent a hotel room to carry on their love affair. Larry has saved up for the special afternoon and gives Tom a piggy bank full of coins to pay for the room. Against his better judgment, Tom helps the couple realize their dream tryst. As they check in, the hotel clerk looks at Larry and Sophie and says, “I never thought of them that way. They always seem so full of hugs.” That patronizing comment manages to both infantilize and dehumanize the couple.

Also disturbing is that by setting up Larry and Sophie in the hotel room, Tom is abetting a crime. Until this past year, two people with developmental disabilities having sexual relations before marriage was illegal in Ireland. The law has only been recently repealed. In light of that history, “Sanctuary “explores the dark consequences for a society that wishes to protect its most vulnerable citizens while cruelly depriving them of their autonomy and independence.


The Festival’s closing film, “Off the Rails,” tells the true story of Darius McCollum, a middle-aged man with Asperger’s who is obsessed with mass transportation. McCollum is particularly drawn to New York’s subway system, where he has impersonated drivers and conductors since he was 15 years old. Over the years, McCollum has slipped through security to amass an impressive collection of MTA uniforms and badges. His devotion to all things transportation has made him an expert in schedules, terminology and various Metropolitan Transit Authority jobs. At one point, he convincingly played the part of a supervisor. One social worker in the film observes that wearing an MTA uniform gives McCollum a sense of importance, a sense that he mattered in the world.

But this is not a story of a quirky man who takes buses and trains and subways out for joy rides. Rather it is the story of a broken criminal justice system incapable of addressing mental health issues. It’s about McCollum’s never-ending recidivism and his inability to control his compulsion. McCollum has spent most of his adult life in and out of jail for his victimless crimes. Most tragically, it is about a man who fails to get the help he needs. The people who try to help point to McCollum’s Asperger’s as the primary reason for his hyper-focus on one particular thing. But there are also those who take advantage of McCollum. Early on, there is a crooked lawyer who took on McCollum’s case for the publicity, only leaving him to languish in jail.

Throughout the documentary, McCollum is filmed on train rides. His story also becomes clear in re-enactments of the various arrests that have repeatedly landed him in jail. Those scenes lend a particular tactile, subterranean feel to the documentary. And though he comes across as a genial criminal, McCollum is nevertheless a repeat offender. It’s hard not to become frustrated with him over that fact. Halfway through the documentary, I thought, “Just give him a job with the MTA!” But it’s not that simple. In the end, McCollum’s impulse-control issues obviously disqualify him to ferry people on a subway or bus.

The genius of “Off the Rails” is the way it digs deep to portray McCollum’s inherent innocence. Like McCollum’s crimes, the end of the story is ambiguous. As of this writing, he sits in jail waiting to appear before yet another judge, who will undoubtedly give him another multi-year sentence.

“Sanctuary” and “Off the Rails” bookend an impressive lineup of films at this year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival. Information about screenings and tickets can be found here.