Documentarian Jeff Malmberg looks at a man who hung on to life against all odds, only to reinvent it in miniature. If life isn't always a bowl of cherries, says Kimberly Gadette, maybe you can figure out a way to recreate the bowl yourself.
Marwencol (pronounced MARR-when-kol) is a small Belgian city. Incredibly small ... as in doll-sized. It's also the therapeutic haven for Mark Hogancamp, the 38-year-old man who was brutally beaten by five men outside of a bar in Kingston, NY (a town approximately two hours north of Manhattan). Having pulled out of a nine-day coma, Hogancamp was discharged from the hospital nearly a month-and-a-half later. No longer having any memory of himself or those around him, he had to approach others asking, "Who am I?" "Did I ever hurt anyone?"
While his assailants nearly beat the life out of him, they inadvertently beat the alcoholic out of him as well. Post-incident, Hogancamp's only reaction to the bottles of booze lined up behind the bar is that the liquid inside them consisted of varying colors. (In an ironic twist, while he used to have a part-time job working at a popular watering hole, he was so drunk that the owner was never quite sure if he'd make it in for his shift. Though he now only works five hours a week at that same bar – with shaky hands, voice, motor skills and all – he's far more reliable.)
Without money for therapy, Hogancamp instinctively knew that by working with dolls, he might improve his dexterity and patience, as well as reinvigorate his imagination. It certainly helped that in his earlier years, he'd been in the armed services, and was innately familiar with carpentry and design.
Starting off with a collection of twenty-seven Barbie dolls, he built a WWII town named Marwencol, spinning a story that it had been pillaged by the SS, leaving only the women alive. (Gorgeous Barbie women, that is, with perfect figures.) His alter ego, an American aviator named "Mark," couldn't believe his good luck when he realized that he'd crashed his plane near a bevy of beauteous babes.
Soon transfixed by his own creation, adding more dolls and building more locations, Hogancamp set up certain rules, ie, no matter the soldiers' nationalities, everyone had to get along. And that every soldier was entitled to romance because, after all, women were the town's greatest resource.
Debut filmmaker Jeff Malmberg switches up and back between Hogancamp's quiet life – his ramblings, his piecing together of his past, interviews with his friends and co-workers -- versus the goings-on in fictional Marwencol. The plain chapter titles that show up on screen, used as devices to divide the film into segments, are echoed by the far more intriguing handmade signs that Hogancamp poses among the dolls. Which is yet another reminder of the stark realities of life versus the fanciful fiction that is the purview of Hogancamp's Marwencol.
With a speech pattern reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's Raymond in Rain Man, and calling to mind Russell's Crowe's younger, less handsome brother, Hogancamp initially seems the most unlikely of heroes. But he's fascinating in all his humble, self-effacing demeanor, often given to unexpected shouts of laughter. He seems to hold nothing back, sharing with us his earlier "drunk journals" replete with violent drawings and suicidal writings. We can't help but draw the conclusion that while the beating destroyed his past life, it also allowed him to begin a new one.
That said, he can't shake off his fears, the haunting of the attack in the year 2000 that changed him forever. He acts out the incident over and over, usually in the guise of torturing SS commandants who come to town, his own alter-ego receiving the brunt of the punishment. Yet somehow, Mark will rally again and again, with the help of his ever-loving Barbie warriors. The world of Marwencol may only be one-sixth the size of "normal" ... and yet it envelops him unlike any other.
Malmberg doesn't so much direct the film as shape it, allowing his camera plenty of time (four years' worth) to record Hogancamp's journey, this strange phenomenon of self-help therapy unwittingly turned into art. The other interviewees, always flattered when Hogancamp creates an alter ego in their names, serve to fill in additional perspective. When Colleen the neighbor describes Hogancamp's crush on her that she gently ended, reminding him that she was a married woman with children, we see a dejected, vulnerable Hogancamp. But though he sighs over her, he will mercilessly evict her alter ego from Marwencol in all due haste.
Hogancamp didn't know he was creating art ... he was merely surviving. And when we all disappear from gawking at his life, he'll carry on, still surviving. Still spinning stories just for himself, just for his own sense of sanity.
In an era of "look-at-me" ... this kind of agenda is as far away from our world as Marwencol itself.
Rating on a scale of 5 Belgian Barbie dolls hiding out from Nazi Ken: 4
Release date: US: ltd, rolling out through March 2011; UK: TBD
Directed by: Jeff Malmberg
Featuring: Mark Hogancamp
Running time: 83 minutes