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Darius Goes West: Twelve Guys and a Dream

Once in a great while, just when you think there is no reason to get up in the morning and that there is no hope for humanity, and that people will just go on killing one another forever, and that tomorrow will be probably be even worse than today, then something happens to turn your world around. For me, that something was seeing a feature length documentary film called Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life, the brainchild of a special education major named Logan Smalley from Athens, Georgia.

To say the film is inspirational is an understatement. To say that it can restore one’s faith in humanity is not an exaggeration. If I could make a wish for everyone for 2008, it would be that every person, young and old, could have the opportunity to see the movie Darius Goes West, the film NBC’s Today Show called  “the little film with the big heart.” The DVD cover describes it as “The Little Film That Could (Change the World).”

The star of the movie is Darius Weems a teenager from Athens, Georgia, with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, the number one genetic killer of children. Darius’ older brother Mario died at the age of 19 of the disease. There is no cure for DMD. Darius knows that he is dying, but dying is not what DGW is about. DGW is about living and loving and raising awareness. DGW is about getting the message out that awareness leads to activism and activism can lead to a cure. And DGW is about having fun and appreciating every moment that you live.

Three years ago when Darius was fifteen, Logan Smalley, who had been asked by Mario to look after his younger brother, got the idea of procuring a wheelchair accessible RV and taking Darius to California to appear on the MTV show “Pimp My Ride.” Logan wanted the MTV show to customize Darius’ wheelchair while at the same time taking Darius, who had never been out of Athens, GA, on the “roll” of his life. Logan recruited ten friends (including his brother Ben) to assist him in this venture.

Not only is Darius an amazing young man, a loving son, and a steadfast friend, his companions are equally remarkable. Starting with the driver, whose bio reads “I Daniel Fargason Epting , being of questionable mind and body…” and who confesses on film to having wrecked his truck several times, and moving in alphabetical order through the list of incredible young men, we have Andrew Carson, John Hadden, John Harmon, Jason Hees, Sam Johnson, Colin Shepley, Ben Smalley, creator/director Logan Smalley, Kevin Wier, and Dylan Wilson.

Each guy was recruited not only for his special talent but also for his enthusiasm and his compassion. The younger crew members all attended Clarke Central High School (where Darius was a freshman at the time) and graduated in 2005. They also all volunteered or worked at Project REACH. The "older" crew members were recruited for their unique skills –John Hadden and Dylan Wilson for camera skills, Daniel Epting for driving skill (this is open to debate according to Darius) and because he can fix anything, and Jason Hees for sound and sense of humor. Each of the young men is committed to making the world a better place.

But on the way to that lofty goal, there is much fun to be had. When the money had been raised, the RV equipped, and the twelve had been bade farewell by the mayor of Athens-Clarke County, the odyssey began. For young Darius who had never been away from home, it was a physical and emotional challenge, but one he was up for every “step” of the way. It is Darius’ astonishing rap that provides the narrative thread for the film. At each juncture of the trip, he provides a creative and insightful rap that not only tells the story but tells us about Darius himself. We get to know him and we admire what we know.

From the gulf at Panama City to the French Quarter in New Orleans, to Carlsbad Caverns (which incidentally is totally handicap accessible as opposed to many places on the journey), to the Grand Canyon (Darius’ favorite: “I feel like I’m king of the world.”), to Las Vegas, to Hollywood and back again, Darius and his friends carry the message about DMD across the United States. And in each location, Darius has an exciting new experience—feeling the ocean for the first time, seeing a really big city, riding in a hot air balloon, rafting on the Colorado, meeting movie stars.

No challenge is too tough for these phenomenal guys, until they reach California and discover that MTV is unwilling to accept the liability that would accompany customizing Darius’ decrepit motorized wheelchair. Disappointed but by no means disheartened (“Idealism is the signature of youth,” Logan observes), they make the best of an unfortunate situation and continue their adventure.

Three and a half weeks and 7,000 plus miles after leaving Georgia, the jubilant crew returns to their hometown of Athens having given Darius “the roll of his life.” The journey itself may have been over, but for Darius it was just the beginning. At one point in the film Darius says, “One day I'll be gone. But folks won’t say Darius gone. They’ll say Darius gone west!”

The documentary of Darius Goes West toured the indy film circuit in 2007 and garnered twenty-five awards. But even more important than winning awards is spreading the word.  “Know about It” is an educational project that brings the film into the classroom and makes it a part of the curriculum. For a nominal fee a teacher can obtain a special “schools” version of the film and have access to a website that contains both student and teacher pages, including lesson plans and study questions and an opportunity to interface with others who have used this material.

For those who are neither students nor teachers but who want to know more about DMD, check out the DMD portion of the Darius Goes West website. You can make a contribution via DGW or go to Charley's Fund.  Meanwhile, if you want to meet Darius, you can find him on MySpace.  To learn more about Logan Smalley, go to the Swampland interview. To purchase a copy of the DVD, go to the Darius Goes West website and know about it, now!

--Penne J. Laubenthal

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