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.

Official site of the film/project, where you can buy story­books of Mark’s pho­tos to help sup­port him.


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