The 39th Denver Film Festival — Day Two

DFF39 eases us into Day Two with only 11 movies, all of which are featured at the Sie Film Center on Colfax. From here on out, it gets crazy, but for today let’s all convene at Henderson’s for a drink and discussion.


JACKSON - April Jackson and her daughter Miracle
April Jackson and her daughter Miracle

Jackson is home to the last remaining abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi. There were more, but that was then. Now, the religious freedom movement has forced legislator’s hands and made women’s health clinics jump through almost impossible hoops to stay open. Only one has.

Jackson, from documentarian Maisie Crow, is a ground-level look at what it takes to keep that clinic open, who is keeping it open, and, most importantly, who needs the clinic to stay open. Opposing the clinic is the self-proclaimed “pro-life” movement trying just about everything to close the clinic down and make Mississippi the only state in the Union that is “abortion free.” Or: “abortion-in-the-safety-of-medical-care free.”

Crow sides with the women and men who operate the clinic, Women’s Health Organization, but she gives ample time to the opposition, the Center for Pregnancy Choices, specifically, 52-year-old Barbara Beavers. The CPC is a deceptively named clinic that does anything and everything to stop women from aborting their pregnancies, regardless of the situation that the women may be in. In one scene, Crow questions Beavers from behind the camera, asking her about saving the mother who may be at risk due to the pregnancy. Beavers laughs lightly and smiles warmly, as she almost always does, and reminds Crow, “But we saved the baby.”

Jackson touches heavily on the deep class divide that occupies both sides of this debate, and much like Alexander Payne’s 1996 satire Citizen Ruth, a pregnant single mother is wedged in between. She is April, 24 years old, and already the mother of five with one more on the way. Beavers works closely with April, trying to get her on the straight-and-narrow, but mostly just making sure she doesn’t get an abortion. Little does Beavers realize how bad April and her children are for her side of the fight, and Crow exploits this dynamic without throwing April under the bus.

It’s a shame that Crow doesn’t spend more time with the “pro-life” people to try to figure out the why behind their motivation. Maybe they don’t exist, maybe they aren’t satisfying, or maybe Beavers and her compatriots simply haven’t asked themselves those questions yet, and aren’t anywhere near an answer. I suspect it’s the latter. How infuriating.


Darius McCollum
Darius McCollum

Darius McCollum has one of the more fascinating stories around. Now 50 years old, this gregarious and affable man has been in and out of New York City prisons and correction facilities since he was 15 years old, and all because he loves the New York transit system.

McCollum has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that causes the person to fixate and obsess over particular things. For McCollum, that obsession has always been trains. He memorizes routes, operation protocols and has an encyclopedic knowledge of their history. When he was a teen, McCollum would escape school bullying by seeking solace in the bowels of the New York subway system. That was the late ’70s, and subways were not nice places. In fact, they were pretty run down, and McCollum could slip by without too much notice.

Soon MTA employees were taking McCollum along on their jobs, even having him fill in for them from time to time. McCollum was a nice kid and a hard worker, and the fear from transit terrorism was not what it was today. McCollum learned everything he could, and the MTA got a hell of a lot of free labor. But then a train driver took it one step too far and let McCollum take a train out on his own, resulting in his arrest.

McCollum would continue to steal trains and impersonate MTA officials for the next 30-plus years. Not once did he endanger a passenger or missed a stop; he was probably the MTA’s best employee they never paid. The problem was, the MTA and the City of New York saw McCollum as a liability and barred him from employment, first as a teen for various reasons and then as an adult due to his multiple offenses.

Off the Rails from director Adam Irving is a comprehensive and heartfelt look at McCollum’s life and escapades. Jude Domski, who wrote the play Boy Steals Train about McCollum, describes him as a Shakespearian figure, one that constantly breaks the law to do what he loves. McCollum sees himself as Superman, but New York sees him as a problem, one that they have no idea how to treat. McCollum is stuck in a revolving door with the correction facilities, one that leaves him constantly broke and homeless. With no work and nowhere to go, why wouldn’t McCollum head back to the subway? He loves it there. He belongs there.

Off the Rails is a fascinating documentary, thanks to McCollum’s personality and presence, but the strength of the doc is how it exposes the flaws in the system. A man like McCollum does not belong at Riker’s Island, a maximum-security prison, but when the system has no precedent of how to deal with a case like his, what else are they to do? NY DA Michael Stuart Garfinkle probably just wishes that McCollum would simply go away, but McCollum isn’t the only one out there. Thousands upon thousands of the homeless population suffer from some form of mental deficiency, and without help, guidance, and support, they will never break free of a cycle that is forced upon them. The McCollums of the world need our help, and they deserve it. How else can we call ourselves a civil society?


Zdzisław Beksiński (Andrzej Seweryn) films the funeral of a loved one.

It is doubtful that many people sitting in the audience are familiar with the Polish surrealist painter and sculpture, Zdzisław Beksiński, which makes The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina) from director Jan P. Matuszynski less a bio-pic and more a career encompassing introduction to the artist’s life and work.

Family stays primarily in the 1980s and jumps back and forth between Beksiński (Andrzej Seweryn); his wife, Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna); his eccentric son, Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik); and family friend, Piotr (Andrzej Chyra)—spoiler: they got problems. All four of them have a couple of screws loose, but family is a strange thing, and they find a way to manage.

What makes The Last Family noteworthy is not the family dynamics but the patriarch, who obsessively documented their life on camera. Matuszynski uses this vast archive to recreate their existence, restaging the documentary aspects of their lives in reserved master-shots. These scenes are typically seen through a door, hallway, or corridor to further emphasize the voyeuristic aspects.

The Last Family is an impeccably shot movie—particularly a stunning one-take airplane crash—but drags in the telling. At a little over two hours longs, Family is not as long as a Sunday dinner with the folks but has that uncomfortable feeling that makes you ready to get out as soon as you can.