It Takes a Village
Sometimes beauty comes from the most horrid ugliness. Five men dragged Mark Hogancamp out of a bar and pummeled him so viciously and brutally, that he had to have his face reconstructed. He suffered massive brain damage, so much so that he had to relearn everything -- including who he was. His Medicaid ran out, so the therapy that was helping him was cut off. Mark sought therapy elsewhere, by constructing a 1/6 scale model WWII Belgian village in his backyard. He peopled the village with dolls, some replicas of people in his life, some just characters he created from whatever the dolls inspired. And one doll to represent himself. With Marwencol, Mark began to weave intricate stories for all of his characters, a narrative he documented with photographs. The small town became Mark's sanctuary, where he could work out frustrations or fears or anxieties or triumphs. Marwencol drew the attention of a local photographer, and then magazine editor, which led to Mark's Marwencol receiving a space at an art gallery. Director Jeff Malmberg does an astonishing job of documenting how Mark Hogancamp found his way back by escaping into his own little world.
Marwencol is a strange documentary in that it unravels almost like a murder mystery. We watch a man play with dolls -- gorgeously rendered dolls in a village that people would assuredly pay money to wander through. As the different folks in Mark's life recount the savage beating, we meet their individual dolls. This introduces us to Mark, an unassuming chainsmoker who seems to have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. He knows Marwencol is just a hobby village and what he's telling are just stories, but at the same time, these are very real to him. Before the attack, Mark was a raging alcoholic who used to document his fugue states in journals filled with intricate and elaborate illustrations. All of this was washed away during the beating, as if the bullies struck the reset button on a 38-year-old man. This version of Mark is timid with sudden excitable bursts of fury, like a cowering abused animal backed into a corner.
Mark plays out his new life through stories in Marwencol. The stories are both beautiful, imaginative, and totally heartbreaking. It's not all glory and gusto for the model Mark in Marwencol. Doll Mark suffers the slings and arrows of romance and relationships, becoming engaged and then losing his wife, marrying again. While in real life, Mark Hogancamp has no relationship; he can't even remember being married though photographs assure him at one point he was. Mark acts out his frustrations against a constant barrage of SS officers. His doll is kidnapped and beaten, by five of the SS soldiers. He is taken into the church and tortured and is only freed when the women of Marwencol come to his aid and slaughter the SS commander. The women of Marwencol are Barbie dolls decked out in everything from military regalia to a blue-haired temptress with a time machine and magical powers that Mark has dubbed the Witch of Marwencol, who uses her time machine (a busted VCR that Mark broke open when a favorite porno tape became lodged inside) to right the wrongs of the past like some sort of Quantum Leap Hot Topic Barbie.
As the various truths about the attacks come out, and about Mark's own proclivities, we can't help but feel horrible for this guy. While his Marwencol narrative is beautiful and hopeful, Mark himself lives alone and plays with dolls. He drags a toy jeep filled with his soldiers up and down the winding Kingston, NY roads where he lives, which seems quaint, until you realize the reason is so he can always feel protected from possible attack. Mark still lives with the fear, which only becomes more potent once he's faced with the prospect of traveling to the city and showing off his private therapeutic village.
Marwencol is a touching little film about a man trying to rebuild his life. The more you contemplate the actual ramification of the film, the more potent it becomes. The only fault of the film, if there really is one, is that there is no actual purpose other than witnessing Mark's powerful struggle. It's a difficult film to recommend, if only because it is such an oddball. What seems like a jumbled mess by Malmberg slowly comes into focus but very late in the feature. While we do become privy to some of Mark's secrets, so much of his former life and the constant difficulty of coping with a real life after the accident are never really given any precedence. Still, Marwencol is a wonderful documentary with a pleasant message, and it's difficult to really take any umbrage with it.