By Jeff Farr
This year has seen many art-related documentaries, such as “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” and “I’m Still Here.” Joining this group is Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol,” which focuses on the life of a little-known contemporary artist, Mark Hogancamp, whose own desire to be known as an artist is negligible.
But he certainly is an artist—a great one—and an artist with a harrowing back-story to boot. We learn in the early minutes of “Marwencol” how Hogancamp was brutally attacked in 2000, all of his memories literally kicked out of him by five assailants.
Malmberg leaves the question of what may have led to this attack for later in the film, but it’s worth waiting. One of the principal pleasures of “Marwencol” is his technique of skillfully withholding, only gradually revealing, layers upon layers of Hogancamp’s story—up until the final minutes of the film.
Hogancamp was obviously lucky to even live through the attack, and his recovery was a long road. The frustrating process of trying to reboot his life led him to devise a unique form of art therapy for himself: the creation in his own backyard of an alternate reality starring dolls.
Marwencol is the name Hogancamp gave the imaginary community he conjured up for his own amusement and healing, a Belgian town during World War II, off the beaten track, where U.S. and British soldiers frolic with a bevy of Barbies. Roaming SS soldiers are unfortunately always lurking nearby and threatening to spoil the fun.
Hogancamp explains how he slowly worked on his patience and dexterity by building the town to the smallest detail. At the same time, he tried to work through many emotional issues related to the attack by enacting various scenarios with the townsfolk—most of them starring his alter ego, Captain Hogancamp—and painstakingly photographing each plot point.
Captain Hogancamp becomes a martyr: he keeps getting apprehended and tortured by the Nazis, who stand in for the real-life attackers. But the powerful womenfolk of Marwencol always seem to rescue the captain at the last minute.
Much credit goes to Malmberg for being fully respectful of Hogancamp’s play world and his stories, several of which are reenacted. We are pulled into Marwencol to the degree that it becomes a real place for us as well. There is ultimately something quite moving about these dolls, their fates, and Hogancamp’s deeply felt love for them.
Interestingly, most of the dolls correlate to actual people in Kingston, New York, where Hogancamp lives, another small town. There are dolls matching a neighbor he loves, his mother, his best friend, his coworkers—eventually even the filmmaker himself. For Hogancamp, the boundaries are blurred: where does the “real” world end and Marwencol begin?
While this theme runs throughout Malmberg’s film, he never pushes the point too far. Thankfully, he never pushes anything too far in “Marwencol,” purposefully never giving sensationalism a chance to creep in and ruin things. The story is made more meaningful with his subtle approach.
While Hogancamp’s Marwencol dramas spring from the attack, it becomes evident that there is more than just that trauma going on in his psychological makeup. Malmberg tactfully covers Hogancamp’s extreme alcoholism prior to the attack but again shows restraint in not searching too hard for more answers in Hogancamp’s murky childhood and family life.
The film’s final section concerns Hogancamp’s eventual discovery by the art world, which leads to a show of his work at White Columns in New York City and the artist’s first trip there since his recovery. Nervously arriving in a Disneyfied Greenwich Village, his disappointment is priceless: where is the freak zone of his dreams, where is that wonderland where everyone would be just as weird as him, hopefully much weirder?
Will Hogancamp find a place for himself and his art in this strange new world? Or will he retreat to the safety of his beloved doll town? If we were in his shoes, what would we do? By this point in the film, we are planted in his shoes.
“Marwencol,” which won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, is a strong debut from Malmberg. Along with the plentiful narrative surprises he has in store, the director, who edited the film himself, has a keen sense for images that surprise and even shock. In particular, he finds effective ways of integrating Hogancamp’s stills of the dolls into the film—to the point where the mysterious pull of his work becomes hard to brush off as just eccentric.
One of Malmberg’s indelible images, often repeated here, is of Hogancamp pulling a miniature jeep, loaded with dolls, down the road near his house. The artist is endearingly determined that the jeep wheels be realistically worn down from their years in his version of the war. There is something of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in this lonely yet undefeated figure making his way down the road to his next adventure with hopes for a better reality to come. In this case, it is a new reality literally of his own making.
A Cinema Guild release.
Produced by Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, Chris Shellen, Kevin Walsh.
Directed and Edited by Jeff Malmberg.
Photography by Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, Kevin Walsh.
Music, Ash Black Bufflo.
Sound Design, Pete Kneser.
Running time: 83 Minutes.