Marwencol (The Cinema Guild, NR)

The film Marwencol is as mesmerizing as Mark’s imaginary town and treats him and his world with absolute respect.

In 2000, Mark Hogancamp was beaten almost to death outside a bar in Kingston, New York. He spent 40 days in the hospital (nine of them in a coma) and as a result of brain damage retained little memory of his previous life.
As part of a self-directed therapy program, Mark began building an intricate imaginary world in his backyard. He created the Belgian town of Marwencol, populated it with 1/6 scale dolls representing many of his friends and neighbors and made it the location for elaborate dramas set during World War II.
A few years later Mark began documenting Marwencol with photographs, which attracted the attention of Esopus magazine and led to a show in a New York gallery. That’s an amazing story, but Mark’s worldly success is not the main focus of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol. Instead it’s one aspect of a complex human story that is given a sensitive treatment in a film that accepts Mark’s created world as absolutely as he does. One thing I’m pretty sure I can say about this film is that you’ve never seen anything like it.
Marwencol the town includes variants on the usual characters of a Hollywood World War II drama: handsome GIs, treacherous Nazis, heroic town girls and barmaids who double in cat-fighting (with Mark’s assurance that all catfights are for entertainment purposes only). Mark creates the scenes of the ongoing Marwencol saga in incredible detail, modifying off-the-rack dolls to suit the characters and stories he invents. This attention to detail is emphasized in the documentary by many extreme close-ups, which make the dioramas seem like mock-ups for stage sets or stills from a movie.
Mark describes Marwencol and events taking place there utterly without irony and frequently in the first person (“the SS had me tied up and were cutting me to ribbons,” “after they get done kicking and punching me they drag me into the church”). He uses exactly the same voice to describe how he constructed the scenes or about his gallery show in New York. It’s clear that he’s working through his trauma by creating these stories. He even gives his alter ego, “Hoagie” Hogancamp, a scar on the same side of his face as the one Mark himself sports from the beating that almost killed him.
The film Marwencol is as mesmerizing as Mark’s imaginary town and treats him and his world with absolute respect. Mark’s art, like his world, is completely without irony, as if his ability to be clever or ironic was destroyed along with his memory. This is not Todd Haynes’ Superstar in combat gear; in other words, but something entirely new. The film’s leisurely pace allows the viewer time to process the visual detail of Mark’s art while also gradually revealing elements of his past and current life.
I saw Marwencol at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year and it made a stronger impression on me than any other documentary. I was not alone in that feeling because it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary and was also selected as Best Documentary at SXSW. You can see some of Mark’s work at | Sarah Boslaugh

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