Marwencol (Director: Jeff Malmberg): In April 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside his local bar by a group of five men who beat him so viciously that he was left in a coma for nine days. The damage to his brain was so severe that most of his memories were lost, and he had to re-learn simple things like how to walk and feed himself. After 40 days in hospital, his benefits ran out and he was unceremoniously released to continue his recovery on his own. Discovering his own journals, Mark realized that before the attack, he had been a fairly gifted artist. But he had also been a self-loathing alcoholic who had trouble keeping jobs and girlfriends. Remarkably, his desire for alcohol completely vanished while his fertile imagination did not, and he began working on a project to help develop his fine motor skills and to come to terms with the violence he suffered.
Marwencol is the name of a fictitious World War 2-era Belgian village which Mark builds at 1/6 scale in his backyard. Populating the finely-detailed buildings with dolls based on his friends and family, he also creates storylines that he acts out and photographs for his own entertainment. The story begins when Mark’s alter-ego, an air-force Captain who crash lands his fighter jet nearby, discovers the village when it is populated only by beautiful women. He quickly establishes himself as the owner of a bar, and hires the women to perform staged “catfights” for the entertainment of any passing soldiers. Soon, the village has a more stable population of characters, including friendly German soldiers. Hogancamp has established rules that nobody can continue hostilities in Marwencol, so it becomes a place where even soldiers from opposing armies can become friends. Everyone plays by these rules, with the exception of the evil SS, who are always plotting to take over the town and kill the inhabitants.
Hogancamp is fully aware that his fantasy world is just that, and yet he uses it to work out his own post-traumatic stress disorder, with its confusing blend of fear and anger. It’s a world where he’s a hero, where women love him and where he can fight off evil with the help of the entire population of Marwencol. When his photography comes to the attention of the art world, though, the challenges for Mark become more real. Can he use the confidence he’s gained in Marwencol to reintegrate into the real world, even the frightening world of the New York City art scene?
Director Malmberg has created an intimate and enormously sympathetic portrait of a remarkable man. Though he resists being called an artist in any way, Hogancamp’s photos are striking, and what appeals to his art world admirers is the complete lack of irony in these “doll scenes.” Though his attackers took most of his memories, they cannot take his imagination, and that turns out to be his greatest strength. A brilliantly edited sequence late in the film compares the relatively benign invasion of his privacy by the art world to a plot by the SS to infiltrate Marwencol and take Captain Hogancamp hostage. It’s clear that he’s really reliving and trying to work through the original attack, but it’s also pretty obvious that the rest of world will always be a scary place to him. This isn’t a film about regaining everything that was lost in a tragedy; rather, it’s about how imagination can sustain us and create a new life that just might be better than the one we had before.