The very first thing that one notices about Mark Hogancamp are his eyes. They are small and a little tired, as if he just woke up from a long sleep. There is no distance in his eyes, they don’t seem to contain memories. Rather, they seem very much focused on the present. When he speaks he has a sweet-natured voice, solemn and intelligent. There is no regret in his demeanor despite his age which I range at about somewhere in his mid-40s.
The manner in which Hogancamp carries himself is specifically rooted in an incident that changed his life. On April 8, 2000, he was leaving a bar when he was attacked by five men who beat him almost to death. The men were arrested and Hogancamp spent nine days in a coma and forty days in the hospital. When he woke up, he had severe brain damage and most of his memory was gone. Years after his incident, his brain is still a little mushy. He works a quiet job at a bar, sweeping up.
The documentary Marwencol settles firmly on Hogancamp who says that due to his injury he has no real memories, only flashes of memory, like snapshots. He knows of his past because of diary entries written before the attack. He reads them, but doesn’t recognize the person who wrote them. He knows that man was an alcoholic, who was bitter and angry, but he also knows that he had an artistic talent. He shows us sketches that are not out of the ordinary. After the attack, he could no longer draw because his hands were too unsteady.
He could not afford therapy, so he compensated by making his own. In his back yard, he created the tiny, fictional town of Marwencol, a Belgian World War II-era town made of dolls and small buildings. His dolls represent people in his life. His alter-ego is a hero-type that looks a little like Harrison Ford. His mother’s alter-ego has a head that came from a Pussy Galore doll. His former girlfriend is represented by a Barbie doll. He collects his dolls and studies them, trying to see who they could represent. When he puts his dolls inside the model, they don’t just stand stiffly, but they seem modulated as if frozen in a moment of action.
Marwencol becomes Hogancamp’s entire world. He creates each character down to the most finite detail, including a backstory. He tells us the stories of what goes on in Marwencol, not as play acting but as if it is really happening. He tells about how his alter-ego wandered into the town and settled down to open a bar. No one is allowed to fight in Marwencol, the only fights are staged catfights inside the bar. Then the Nazis showed up and he corralled all of the citizenry into his bar while the some of the foot soldiers kick down doors trying to find the bar. Hogancamp’s employer Rose is stunned to find that her alter-ego was killed by the Nazis because she wouldn’t talk.
What becomes apparent as he tells the story is that Hogancamp isn’t just playing with dolls, he is finding a manner in which to deal with his trauma. His alter-ego in Marwencol, is stripped and beaten by the SS just as he was in real life. He cannot remember the attack, he just feeds off of information from his assailant’s testimony and from what he has been told. The play acting is a manner in which he can piece that moment together and deal with it on a realistic level.
It is hard to really describe what makes Marwencol really special. It is a quiet, tenderly beautiful story of a man who stepped back from the edge of a near-fatal incident and creates his own therapy through art. The photos he takes of his tiny town are crisp and beautiful (I have featured some of them below). The characters seem alive even though his subjects are immobile. He modulates every single tiny detail perfectly. It is a futile exercise in trying to understand the effect this movie has on you once you let yourself be carried away by Hogancamp’s imagination. He takes us so solidly and so convincingly into his tiny man-made world that, after a while, we forget that we are simply looking at dolls. It sounds strange, but I felt I got to know the people Marwencol so well that when one of the women in town left her boyfriend for another man, I felt a little sad.