By Don Simpson | October 12, 2010
Director: Jeff Malmberg
After being violently attacked by five men outside of a neighborhood bar in Kingston, New York, Mark Hogancamp — upon waking from a coma — had severe brain damage, near-total memory loss and required facial reconstructive surgery. Hogancamp remained in occupational therapy, relearning basic motor skills, until he could no longer afford the cost.
Hogancamp began to develop the alternate world of Marwencol — a fictional one-sixth scale World War II-era Belgium town populated by plastic figurines including Steve McQueen, GI Joe’s and 27 Barbies — in his Kingston backyard. Marwencol quickly developed into a mentally and physically therapeutic exercise for Hogancamp, aiding him in controlling his anger, regaining his motor skills, and re-channeling his artistic talents (Hogancamp was an avid drawer before the accident).
The attention to detail within the world of Marwencol is mind-blowing and Hogancamp’s full immersion into this alternate universe is almost unsettling. As compelling as Hogancamp’s personal narrative is, producer-director-editor Jeff Malmberg realizes that the serial narrative for the characters of Marwencol is equally intriguing; Malmberg thus devotes ample time for his camera to crawl through the one-sixth-scale town as if it is a movie set. This directorial choice may be at least partially due to Hogancamp’s fuzziness on the details of his life before the beating (he was married once and a severe alcoholic); the talking head interviews (with Mark’s friends and family) are not able to fill in many blanks either.
There is one rule of law in Marwencol: everyone must get along. Hogancamp’s one-sixth scale alter ego hangs out amongst General Patton and an international cast of plastic characters. People from Hogancamp’s real life — from his best friend Bert to his neighbor Colleen (the object of Mark’s affections) — have earned doppelgangers in Marwencol. The town remains peaceful until the occasions when Nazi soldiers show up to wreak havoc. (Hogancamp’s alter ego is permanently scarred by a Nazi beating.) There is at least one wedding, plenty of staged catfights at a bar dubbed The Ruined Stocking, and a Belgian witch who can travel through time.
Apparently fully cognizant of the choices he makes, Hogancamp seems fully aware that mentally escaping to the fictional safe haven of Marwencol functions as a means to manage his deep anger for and distrust of the real world. (His dolls are fully armed whenever he drags them and their jeep to town — just in case he needs protection.) Thanks in part to Malmberg’s empathy, Hogancamp never comes across as a madman; he seems more like an oddball subject from a Werner Herzog documentary.
Hogancamp’s fantasy world is noticed by a local photographer David Naugle who then introduces Hogancamp to Esopus Magazine’s editor Tod Lippy (Malmberg discovered Hogancamp in an issue of Esopus Magazine). Suddenly, the therapeutic exercise of Marwencol transforms into a prime example of outsider art and Hogancamp finds himself preparing for his debut gallery show in New York City.
Winner of the South by Southwest 2010 Competition Award for Documentary Feature, Marwencol is an intriguing story featuring a very eccentric subject (apparently a surefire recipe for successful documentaries nowadays). The visualizations of Marwencol — montages of still photos and Malmberg’s footage — share a stunningly surreal kinship with Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, except that there is not a single wink of irony to be found within Hogancamp’s scenarios. Sure I might have enjoyed an even more traditional documentary focusing more on Hogancamp’s past, but I would have much rather seen a film solely comprised of the serial narratives that he has created for Marwencol (thanks to Marwencol, the latter scenario has a better chance of coming to fruition).