In 2000, Mark Hogancamp was beaten senseless outside of a bar by a group of brutes. The resulting brain injury wiped his mind clean, forcing the 38-year-old man to relearn basic functions, rebuilding his life after an extended hospital stay. Instead of feeding into an understandable rage over what was lost, Mark reclaimed what was left of his life through a curious hobby: photographs of 1/6-scale dolls engaged in a large-scale WWII recreation that reflects Mark’s own dreams of community support, filling his vast emotional needs.
“Marwencol” is the title of this documentary and the name of Mark’s faux Belgian town, where his dolls carry out their daily existence of war, patrol, and consumption while the artist creates vivid narratives that every figure participates in. Director Jeff Malmberg doesn’t aim for the obvious with this odd snapshot of backyard therapy, instead capturing Mark in a pure sense of reaction to the camera and life itself, which is repeatedly reduced to 12-inch duty so he can process the world and regain some sense of control that was lost when he experienced brain trauma.
Without indulging a dripping sense of whimsy or sympathy, Malmberg allows Mark’s wondrous work with the dolls to tell his story. A man obsessed with details, Mark dresses and arms his soldiers and floozies (catfighting is a local pastime) with meticulous care, erecting bars and shops to stage his stories in, visiting a local hobby shop to keep his world stocked with teeny minutiae. And what wonderful minutiae it is, committed to film by Mark in a manner that creates reality to the doll world, with lifelike scenes of conflict and reaction that feed into the creator’s sense of escapism. Faced with mounting debt, medical difficulties, and a job rolling meatballs at a local restaurant one day a week, Mark channels his frustration into the combat tales of Marwencol, monitoring a combustible town populated with the alter-egos of friends and family.
A chain-smoker and woozy raconteur, Mark’s an approachable fellow with a remarkable, irony-free sense of meditation. He lives through Marwencol and his photographs, which help him to cope with his heartbreaking life. There’s an obsession with clothes and feminine footwear that’s carefully explored, peeling away the layers of the Marwencol mayor, moving past the attack to observe a man snapping the pieces of his former existence together. Through the dolls, Mark is able to confront his assault, organize his friendships, and struggle with personal sexuality. Yet, the film isn’t a heavy reinforcement of shame, but a composed celebration of creativity, brought to life through the soap opera of toys, offering Mark the hero status he’s always dreamed for himself.
Turning Marwencol into a New York art show is perhaps the only real sense of plot the documentary has. It’s an interesting tension, brought on by Mark’s high-heeled anxiety, but the true beauty and amazement of the film is best left lingering inside the borders of this imaginary town, populated with plastic grunts and powered by the artistry of a man attempting to discover his true self for the second time in his life.