Imagination therapy... Mark Hogancamp builds a new world in Marwencol (2010)
On April 8th, 2000, NY photographer Mark Hogancamp was attacked and left for dead outside a bar in his hometown, resulting in a nine day coma from which many feared he would not return. After regaining consciousness this former alcoholic had lost all memory of who he was or had ever been, examining and re-examining wedding videos and photographs in an attempt to regain any scrap of an identity. In order to rebuild his life Mark was instructed to first work on his imagination, and so set about building Marwencol, a WWII-era Belgian village, 1/6th-scale, in his backyard. Every citizen of Marwencol is an alter ego for somebody in Mark's reality, and they share relationships he no longer knows how to have. All the anger he suppresses is unleashed in firefights with the SS, who in one scene are ambushed by covert Barbies. Marwencol is imagination therapy, but thanks to editor-turned-director Jeff Malmberg the village has also become an acclaimed work of outsider art, and this fantastic documentary can sit comfortably alongside recent bedfellows Exit Through The Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010) and Waste Land (Walker, 2010).
As kooky as it may appear on the surface, Marwencol is actually a deeply involving and affecting film, and many viewers will be left with great admiration for Mark's struggle. After the attack he underwent reconstructive facial surgery, and had to learn how to walk and talk again, as if being reborn. We learn that whenever he goes for a stroll around the neighborhood (usually dragging behind a little army jeep), Mark has to look down and watch his feet to avoid wandering off the path and into the road. This is a man with such a big heart, but when asked about the thugs who tore his world apart he is consumed with rage, almost transforming into a different person before our eyes. This is where Marwencol comes in...
What's immediately striking about the town is how detailed it is, from the stitching on a handbag to the inner-workings of a military vehicle. The houses are not just hollow constructions - their doors and windows open to a unique and personal world, each relative to a place in reality. Mark owns a restaurant in Marwencol (Hogancamp's) and the tables are all set out with chairs, tablecloth, utensils and glasses. The seating is carefully arranged, and somehow I found myself wondering what the food might taste like. Plastic, of course. The soldier's weapons are also fully functional, each with their own ammo store (magazine cartridges are built to fit their corresponding firearm). This is what gives Marwencol such an incredible sense of feeling, and what makes it such an effective form of therapy for Mark. Everything is real. Everything works. It's memory reconstructed through fiction. As we are introduced to the members of the village we meet a witch who possesses a most valuable item: a time machine which can change fate. Perhaps this is Hogancamp's own wish - to turn back time and rectify every wrong he ever made. An attempt to save his own life.
The world of Marwencol is so meticulously constructed that only multiple viewings will allow viewers to fully absorb it, but sadly the film remains without a UK release date, and I've made little progress in finding out when it's due for distribution. I really hope you get to see this one soon. It's been the highlight of Flatpack 2011.