The beginning is all about faces–the faces of the five attackers (who go unnamed) and the swollen, reddened face of Mark Hogancamp who was in a coma for 40 days as a result of a brutal beating. Then there’s face of his caretaker and that of Hogancamp’s mother alongside their avatars in another world. This is a tragedy about a man with considerable artistic talent who became addicted to booze and during one drunken night had his memory erased.
Written and directed by Jeff Malmberg, “Marwencol” is a sensitive look at a man who has had to rebuild his life and filled it with his imagination. Unable to draw anymore because his hands shake too much his creativity was channeled from drawing to creating scenarios and life stories that became part of his therapy and family.
First, I think one should ask how one felt about dolls and action figures during one’s childhood and youth. Then I’d wonder if one once daydreamed about oneself as a hero with one’s acquaintances filling in as supporting actors and bit players in the adventures. This is very much what Hogancamp has done with a vital difference–his childhood has been erased.
The movie lets the action figures hold signs that break down the documentary. The first is: “Chapter One: The Attack.” We’re introduced people and their action figure alter egos. His lawyer Emmanuel Nneji is shown holding his doll as is his mother, Edda. His mother recalls how heartbreaking it was to see her adult son have to relearn how to walk, write and talk.
On 8 April 2000, 38-year-old Hogancamp was attacked and his memory mostly obliterated. Nneji tells us what is known and why it is important. The attack was spurred by Hogancamp’s drunken confession that he cross dressed. Hogancamp tells us that some memories may come back in stills–like single snapshot but without the context. Before that, he had been married but that failed because he found himself in love with the bottle. As a child, he had been fascinated by his grandfather’s missing leg–the legacy of serving in Hitler’s army, but Hogancamp had also served in the military.
There are “The Rules of the Town” and how it is built and peopled, but there are women and they take an active role in the battles of Marwencol. Director takes us to meet the people who comment on their dolls. There are some awkward moments because in Hogancamp’s “search for love,” he seems to be drawn to the unattainable–married women like Colleen who is married and has three children.
Hogancamp was discovered by a local artist, David Naugle, who brought him to the attention of an editor, Tod Lippy of Esopus magazine. Lippy recalls that when most people use dolls in their photographic scenarios there’s a sense of irony but with Hogancamp that is absent because Hogancamp is “not using the work as a tool to do something else.”
After the art world discovers Hogancamp, there is a New York City show and it’s moving to see Hogancamp speculate about the people in NYC as well as what he should wear. Hogancamp’s art and the growing appreciation has changed some people’s perspective, but the obsessive work itself has given Hogancamp improved manual dexterity because before the attack he had been working on 1:36 scale figures but after the attack had to settle with 1:6 (Barbie doll and G.I. Joe scale) figures.
You can see that he also learned about photography and had a natural eye, progressing from a camera with a broken light meter to a more modern digital camera. And you can then see the whole world go meta as Hogancamp’s alter ego, takes up the model making hobby because Hogancamp can now work with 1:36 scale models.
The name of the fictional town in Belgium comes from blending his first name, with Colleen’s and the waitress Wendy who gave him a few hours of work after the attack. As for the attack itself, you’ll be disappointed to learn how little time was served and that all of the assailants were walking free in the same small town by 2010. You have to wonder what they might think of Hogancamp’s Marwencol. Their attack weaned Hogancamp from alcohol and the injuries and limitations in medical care, forced Hogancamp to find his own therapy that includes what allegedly set off the attack–wearing high heels.
“Marwencol” is currently streaming on iTunes and Fandor. You can also purchase the Bluray/DVD.