Interview with Jeff Malmberg

“The more you can get rid of the technical aspects and just make it a human connection, that’s where documentary will beat fiction every time.”

The documentary Marwencol, directed by Jeff Malmberg, is the kind of film that can make even the most jaded critic sit up and take notice. Marwencol’s subject is Mark Hogancamp, a man from Kingston, New York who suffered brain damage as the result of a beating so severe that he lost almost all memory of his former life and had to relearn how to perform the most basic tasks. As a form of self-designed therapy, Mark began building the imaginary town of Marwencol in his backyard and using it as the setting for World War II dramas created with 1/6 scale dolls, many of which represented characters based on his friends and family members. A few years later Mark began taking photographs of scenes set in Marwencol, which brought him to the attention of the art world and resulted in a solo gallery show in New York City.
But Marwencol has more to recommend it than just its fascinating subject matter. This is no conventional talking heads documentary—instead Malmberg deliberately created a film that allows the audience to share his experience of getting to know Mark and his art gradually over a period of time. And as you get to know Mark in the film, you also find yourself engaged in philosophical ruminations about questions such as what is considered art (or “capital-A Art” as Jeff calls it), who gets to decide and whether or not such questions even matter.
Marwencol won the Documentary Feature Award at SXSW this year. It’s currently playing as part of the Seattle International Film Festival (Paul Constant of The Stranger calls it “the best documentary at SIFF this year”) and I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Jeff Malmberg about the film and becoming a documentary filmmaker, among other things.
I decided to cut right to the chase with my first question. Marwencol is a tricky film to describe, so I asked Jeff what he would say about his film to someone who knew nothing about it. His answer: Marwencol is a film about “a photographer who creates this imaginary world and decides if he wants to live inside it.”
Then I asked Jeff if he could tell us a little more about how he got involved in this project. He was already an experienced film editor (whose credits include Open House, The Hottie and the Nottie, and episodes of the television programs American Gangster, Independent Lens and Unsung) who wanted to try directing and was looking for a subject. Upon reading a feature in ESOPUS magazine about Mark, Jeff thought he had found a good subject for a five-minute short film. However, after meeting Mark and seeing more of his work Jeff decided, “Here’s someone who deserves my understanding and my investigation,” he says. The project grew to become a documentary feature. Over a four-year period Jeff shot about 160 hours of video during regular visits to Kingston (no small effort for someone who lives and works in Los Angeles) and became tight friends with Mark. He says he discovered “new layers” to the story during each visit.
Marwencol is a first-rate documentary shot with simple technical means. I asked Jeff to tell us a bit more about how the film was actually created. He says he generally worked without crew, shooting most of the footage himself on a Sony PD-150 (the same camera used by videographers for St. Louis’s community television station, KDHX-TV). He used a boom mike for sound but did not use artificial lights or reflectors. Jeff sees the simplicity of this approach as fundamental to making the film work. By removing technical barriers, he allows an intimacy such that the interviews became simply “two people talking.” He advises aspiring filmmakers to keep this goal in mind. “The more you can get rid of the technical aspects and just make it a human connection, that’s where documentary will beat fiction every time,” he says.
Jeff’s other advice for people who want to make their own documentaries: learn to edit. “On a documentary level, knowing how to edit is really essential,” he says. “You can cut your way out of not knowing how to do things. I remember shooting stuff and thinking—don’t worry about it, you can figure it out.” My paraphrase: you don’t have to be an expert in every aspect of filmmaking to get out there and make your own film—and if you are good at editing you can overcome a lot of your own deficiencies in other areas.
As a last word on the film, Jeff says: “The movie is an opportunity to look at somebody you might initially dismiss or put in a box or have prejudgments on. A really powerful thing in documentaries is to allow you to look beyond your initial prejudgments. This was the process for me and hopefully the process of watching the movie. There is beauty everywhere.” | Sarah Boslaugh
You can learn more about Mark Hogancamp and Marwencol at The storybook Welcome to Marwencol, featuring Mark’s photography and captions, can be purchased from the web site: all proceeds go to support Mark’s work and family.


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