Marwencol (2011)

Directed by Jeff Malmberg

In 2000 Kingston, New York resident Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten outside of a bar by 5 other men. He suffered irreversible brain damage which included almost entire loss of memory, which forced the thirty something man to relearn how to do everything. The story of Marwencol is Hogancamp’s story.

Hogancamp was an alcoholic before the accident, but his friends tell him he was a nice guy. He doesn’t know. But Marwencol is not about the accident, but about Hogancamp’s recovery and his unique style of therapy. Since funds quickly ran out, Mark was unable to continue his therapy with doctors, so instead he created a 1/6th scale town set in World War II called Marwencol. And in this world, Mark projects an alter ego, along with characters from his real life, into a fictional storyline, where Mark is the hero. The story is played out using dolls and then Mark photographs them. The experiment is very personal and nobody other than Hogancamp’s friends knew about it until a local man with connections to Esopus Magazine got wind of the great photographs by Mark. That is when his photographs became an art exhibit in New York City and his story became the documentary film Marwencol.

What is most remarkable about the film is its novelty. Hogancamp has created an entire new world for himself to be able live his life comfortably under his handicaps. And in addition, he creates an entire story within the fictional town. It truly is a great achievement by a man who has lost his entire memory of how to live life. Mark if forced to relearn simple motor skills and simple creative reflexes and his use of Marwencol is paramount in his ability to recover and rediscover himself after such a traumatic accident. With Marwencol, Mark is able to exercise both his mind and his body and it is representative of who Mark is as a human, allowing him to use his imagination and escape from the troubling world into the fantasy of Marwencol where he is the hero of the story.

It is a film, and a story, that might be sad and depressing if it were not for the amazing humanity shown by Hogancamp in his tremendous effort to create an amazingly intricate and detailed alter ego and fantasy world. And the film does him justice by not forcing him to relive the events, which he cannot remember anyway. There is the obligatory return to the scene of the crime segment in the film, but for the most part, director Jeff Malmberg focuses on the creative and artistic genius of Hogancamp and his inspiring story rather than dwell on the past.

It seems the question “what is art?” has become a popular question among recent documentary films. Last year saw the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop by renown street artist Banksy. In that film it was discussed extensively what constitutes art and what does not. Then there was Waste Land, which chronicles artist Vik Muniz’s journey to the world’s largest trash dump in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There he used the trash of the dump and the people who worked there to create works of art that sold for thousands of dollars. Both of those films were nominated for Academy Awards.

With Marwencol, the question becomes is what Mark Hogancamp doing, art? Many seem to think so, and the extremely personal nature of his photographs and his story would seem to suggest that it is art, but that doesn’t stop detractors from saying things like “I’d rather look at photographs of real war.” To which a friend of Hogancamp responded, “ This is Mark’s real war.”

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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