After a vicious attacks leaves him brain-damaged and broke, Mark Hogancamp seeks recovery in "Marwencol", a 1/6th scale World War II-era town he creates in his backyard.
As with all the very best documentaries, it's what is implied rather than what is said outright. This brilliantly restrained piece chooses to give subtle information at all the right times, perfectly conveying the emotion attached to its subject matter. Previous alcoholic, bitter and angry, Mark Hogancamp was left in a coma after he received a savage beating outside a bar by five men. The resulting damage meant that he had also lost a lot of memory from the attack, losing details in his life (including his need for alcohol). Having lost his identity, Mark dealt with his traumas by constructing the titular miniature town of Marwencol, often reenacting scenes from flashes of memory, with toy dolls closely representing people in his life.
Brilliantly paced, we learn of Mark's life, anxieties, and fears, and learn of a lonely, highly intelligent individual, who just does not want any further pain in his life. Thus, retracting from life and society, to live through his doll-town stories. If the first half is a little labouring in providing information to the viewer, the second half justifies this approach no end, as we compassionately learn of Mark's personality, what makes him comfortable, and the few real loves throughout his life. As well as the reason for the attack that so affected his life.
The film is never judgmental, never dwells on its issues more than others. Scenes of Mark walking a toy jeep 160 miles on his trips to the local stores in order to wear the wheels in and appear authentic, prove to be highly endearing rather than seem odd or snigger-inducing. When Mark's constructions are later discovered as works of art, he struggles with his preparation for a New York exhibition of his constructions and photography. Yet clearly his honesty and integrity have a strong effect on the people he encounters there. What we are left with in the end is an honest portrait of a man overcoming his life's traumas. Therapy through art, in the most dignified and humble of ways.
Mark does not last long in formal therapy. And no longer able to draw like he used to, he constructs a lovingly detailed reconstruction of a Belgian village from World War II, 'Marwencol,' populated by action figures and Barbie dolls, in which he casts himself as the main hero, simultaneously a man of action and a bartender who no longer drinks like, as he says, Sam Malone.(Which I never saw the logic of, but whatever.) And, yes, of course, there is a time machine. This allows him to work out his frustrations and fantasies safely(especially involving cat fights) and his friends and co-workers feel it an honor to also be represented. So, in the end, you have acceptance.
I have minor quibbles with how the film is structured. The story is shot in such extreme closeup that there's not enough sense of how large the Marwencol "set" is -- a few establishing shots at the beginning really would have helped. Also, director Jeff Malmberg takes too long to clarify that his subject's emphasis is on photography. For awhile, one wonders whether Hogancamp simply poses these dolls as a fleeting, playtime fantasy. Still, his story is such a sure thing that it's near impossible to botch.
Be forewarned that Hogancamp is not entirely sympathetic. His doting adoration for his female dolls can be disturbing (his favorites "sleep" on the nightstand next to his bed and are told "I love you" as he switches off the light) and his fixation on "catfights" suggests some cretinous tendencies. However, his bitterness toward his past attackers is easy to accept, and his constructive way of rechanneling that anger is a creative marvel.
The latter portion reveals another intriguing quirk of Hogancamp's character that shall go unspoken, and the final few minutes add a recursive twist of staggering brilliance. Seek out this film. Rent it along with "Crumb" and give yourself a double bill of unlikely artists and their coping mechanisms.
"Marwencol" does have an unfortunate postscript: The requirements of Hogancamp's welfare status prevent him from earning income from his work. Selling his photos means forfeiting his disability checks. As yet, his only workaround is asking supporters to donate credit for him to buy supplies at his favored hobby shop.
There is a parallel narrative of his hobby/Life/Art of building dioramas featuring him and his friends in 1/6-th scale living lives in WWII that parallel the events in his life.
Normally I watch a movie and if it is good, then it is good. But then I watch a film like MARWENCOL and it stays with me, and this film will stay in my mind for quite some time.
Hogancamp was an alcoholic before the accident, but his friends tell him he was a nice guy. He doesn't know. But Marwencol is not about the accident, but about Hogancamp's recovery and his unique style of therapy. Since funds quickly ran out, Mark was unable to continue his therapy with doctors, so instead he created a 1/6th scale town set in World War II called Marwencol. And in this world, Mark projects an alter ego, along with characters from his real life, into a fictional storyline, where Mark is the hero. The story is played out using dolls and then Mark photographs them. The experiment is very personal and nobody other than Hogancamp's friends knew about it until a local man with connections to Esopus Magazine got wind of the great photographs by Mark. That is when his photographs became an art exhibit in New York City and his story became the documentary film Marwencol.
What is most remarkable about the film is its novelty. Hogancamp has created an entire new world for himself to be able live his life comfortably under his handicaps. And in addition, he creates an entire story within the fictional town. It truly is a great achievement by a man who has lost his entire memory of how to live life. Mark if forced to relearn simple motor skills and simple creative reflexes and his use of Marwencol is paramount in his ability to recover and rediscover himself after such a traumatic accident. With Marwencol, Mark is able to exercise both his mind and his body and it is representative of who Mark is as a human, allowing him to use his imagination and escape from the troubling world into the fantasy of Marwencol where he is the hero of the story.
It is a film, and a story, that might be sad and depressing if it were not for the amazing humanity shown by Hogancamp in his tremendous effort to create an amazingly intricate and detailed alter ego and fantasy world. And the film does him justice by not forcing him to relive the events, which he cannot remember anyway. There is the obligatory return to the scene of the crime segment in the film, but for the most part, director Jeff Malmberg focuses on the creative and artistic genius of Hogancamp and his inspiring story rather than dwell on the past.
It seems the question "what is art?" has become a popular question among recent documentary films. Last year saw the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop by renown street artist Banksy. In that film it was discussed extensively what constitutes art and what does not. Then there was Waste Land, which chronicles artist Vik Muniz's journey to the world's largest trash dump in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There he used the trash of the dump and the people who worked there to create works of art that sold for thousands of dollars. Both of those films were nominated for Academy Awards.
With Marwencol, the question becomes is what Mark Hogancamp doing, art? Many seem to think so, and the extremely personal nature of his photographs and his story would seem to suggest that it is art, but that doesn't stop detractors from saying things like "I'd rather look at photographs of real war." To which a friend of Hogancamp responded, " This is Mark's real war."
Great film, Highly recommended.
After being beaten into a coma during a bar-room brawl in Kingston, New York, Mark Hogancamp struggles to live with his mental incapacities by obsessively creating and photographing Marwencol, a battle-torn WWII town. Marwencol springs solely from Hogancamp's imagination, he populates it with scenes filled with Barbies and G.I.Joes-ever so intricately detailed, decorated and dressed-and photographs them. As the film progresses, the viewer continues to discover just how tightly Hogancamp's past and present life is woven into the fictitious events within Marwencol.
If nothing else, the film demonstrates that Hogancamp has developed an amazingly strong talent in the composition of, and the realistic photography of, miniatures. His camera work certainly deserved some kind of exhibition, as it did indeed eventually receive. The close look-see at all this photography, and the incredible detail within it, makes for quality viewing time on its own.
The film is also likely to amaze budding psychologists, in that it shows just how incredibly creative the mind can be when it attempts to ensure its own self-preservation. Though his mental functioning is severely damaged, Hogancamp's mind invents this Marwencol pathway to attempt to continue to accomplish its normal goals and functionings.
Example: Hogancamp knows enough to know he can't likely woo his attractive next-door neighbor in any conventional manner, so Hogancamp has her Marwencol alter-ego wooed by HIS Marwencol alter-ego. Hogancamp's subconscious is gaming that the projection - the Marwencol goings-on of which the neighbor is well aware - will accomplish the wooing. It doesn't, hence Hogancamp's mind must find a defense mechanism. So the Marwencol story line evolves so that Hogancamp's Marwencol alter-ego simply finds another Marwencol girlfriend. Problem solved.
Another example: The outcome in Marwencol for Hogancamp and the bar-room brawl he has with Nazi attackers, of course, has a very different outcome than what happened during his bar-room brawl in Kingston.
RECOMMENDATION: This film was extraordinarily well received by the critics and rightfully so. It took the filmmaker nearly five years to make it happen and the result is a thoughtful product. And for a certain type of viewer it will be fascinating content. But if it doesn't sound as though it will fascinate you, well then, it almost certainly won't.
The manner in which Hogancamp carries himself is specifically rooted in an incident that changed his life. On April 8, 2000, he was leaving a bar when he was attacked by five men who beat him almost to death. The men were arrested and Hogancamp spent nine days in a coma and forty days in the hospital. When he woke up, he had severe brain damage and most of his memory was gone. Years after his incident, his brain is still a little mushy. He works a quiet job at a bar, sweeping up.
The documentary Marwencol settles firmly on Hogancamp who says that due to his injury he has no real memories, only flashes of memory, like snapshots. He knows of his past because of diary entries written before the attack. He reads them, but doesn't recognize the person who wrote them. He knows that that man was an alcoholic, who was bitter and angry, but he also knows that he had an artistic talent. He shows us sketches that are not out of the ordinary. After the attack, he could no longer draw because his hands shook too much.
He could not afford therapy, so he made his own. In his back yard, he created the tiny, fictional town of Marwencol, a Belgian World War II-era town made of dolls and small buildings. His dolls represent people in his life. His own alter-ego is a hero-type that has a head the looks a little like Harrison Ford. His mother's alter-ego has a head that came from a Pussy Galore doll. His former girlfriend is represented by a Barbie doll. He collects his dolls and studies them, trying to see who they could represent. When he puts his dolls inside the model, they don't just stand stiffly, but they seem modulated as if frozen in a moment of action.
Marwencol becomes Hogancamp's entire world. He creates each character down to the most finite detail, including a backstory. He tells us the stories of what goes on in Marwencol, not as play acting but as if it is really happening. He tells about how his alter-ego wandered into the town and settled down to open a bar. No one is allowed to fight in Marwencol, the only fights are staged catfights inside the bar. Then the Nazi's showed up and he corralled all of the citizenry into his bar while the some of the fooksoldiers kick down doors trying to find the bar. Hogancamp's employer Rose is stunned to find that her alter-ego was killed by the Nazis because she wouldn't talk.
What becomes apparent as he tells the story is that Hogancamp isn't just playing with dolls, he is finding a manner in which to deal with his trauma. His alter-ego in Marwencol, is stripped and beaten by the SS just as he was in real life. He cannot remember the attack, he just feeds off of information from his assailant's testimony and from what he has been told. The play acting is a manner in which he can piece that moment together and deal with it on a realistic level.
It is hard to really describe what makes Marwencol really special. It is a quiet, tenderly beautiful story of a man who stepped back from the edge of a near-fatal incident and creates his own therapy through art. The photos he takes of his tiny town are crisp and beautiful (I have featured some of them below). The characters seem alive even though his subjects are immobile. He modulates every single tiny detail perfectly. It is a futile exercise in trying to understand the effect this movie has on you once you let yourself be carried away by Hogancamp's imagination. He takes us so solidly and so convincingly into his tiny man-made world that, after a while, we forget that we are simply looking at dolls. It sounds strange, but I felt I got to know the people Marwencol so well that when one of the women in town left her boyfriend for another man, I felt a little sad.