A reluctant outsider artist, Mark Hogancamp’s imaginary world invites fantasy as self-therapy.
Forget big blue space dolls—years before James Cameron grafted various folktales from his homeland to make his three-dimensional (sub)epic Avatar, a man in a small town in New York State was living vicariously through ‘avatars’ of his own devising. And they’re even in 3-D, because these so-called alter-egos are scale model figurines of the maker, his family, his friends and colleagues.
An absorbing film which skirts the border of voyeurism without ever crossing over, Jeff Malmberg’s debut feature Marwencol manifests considered and passionate documentary filmmaking. Any technical merit, however, pales in comparison with Marwencol’s subject Mark Hogancamp. Subjected to a serious beating at the hands of five men, Mark’s encounter left him temporarily comatose. This tragic event resulted in serious brain damage leaving him with virtually no memory of his life up to that time, along with completely diminished motor skills and severe psychological scarring. After his state funded therapy came to an end, Mark, who’d rediscovered his artist bent, found a unique means of self-therapy: he created the fantasy world of ‘Marwencol’—a World War II town he’d built in his backyard which he peopled with his ever evolving population of alter-egos. This make-believe world has become Hogancamp’s safe haven: a place where he can vent his feelings and regain some measure of the control and confidence his beating had stripped from him. Fears can be faced in Marwencol and wrongs righted; storylines adjusted to suit.
Whilst not technically or artistically the most developed of documentaries, the shooting and construction of the film is more than adequate and doesn’t engender negative attention—at least not from me. In another review I read, Malmberg was criticised for lazily structuring Marwencol in titled chapter sections. Conversely, I think the director’s use of Hogencamp’s alter-ego Hank for this chaptering justifies the device as it draws the production aspects of the film into the Marwencol ‘reality’ thereby reinforcing the blurring of the ‘real’ world and the ‘fantasy’ world for the subject, while also allowing the audience to partake directly in it as part of our viewing experience.
In fact Marwencol’s greatest strength is that, alongside the talking heads—be it Hogencamp himself or one of his friends, colleagues or family members—or displays of Mark’s photographic/installation ‘art’, Malmberg devotes a great portion of footage to observing Mark interacting in his alternative universe. It is here that the film evinces the most emotional and cinematic depth: as Mark positions his alter-ego ‘Hank’ at a barstool; clothes one of his girls in just the right pair of shoes; or hangs up an SS officer or two in a revenge sequence which mirrors his anger at the injustice he has been forced to swallow. Hogancamp’s alter-egos are as direct and artless as the subject himself—one interviewee commenting that unlike most model art Mark’s work is irony free. It is in viewing this footage that we are most in danger of becoming voyeurs; enjoying an emotive response to another person’s interior world and critiquing as art something that was never primarily intended for public exhibition. For the most part the filmmakers are admirably sensitive to Mark’s position and needs, but in their enthusiasm to help him gain some notoriety in the art world—and hopefully some money as a result—they also skip past the fact that maybe this level of attention will ultimately not be what is best for him. Mark even states at one point that Marwencol feels like the one thing he has left that wasn’t taken from him in the attack, and that he feels afraid of giving it over to an art/film loving public. It is due to this sentiment that I am of two minds about the film. On the one hand I find the story/subject is intensely compelling and interesting, and I am very glad to have seen it. On the other hand, I almost feel like this film should never have been made; leaving Marwencol and its population to Hogancamp and any personal friends he feels inclined to invite in. But the fact remains that Marwencol is already out in the wild and as such you’d do well to see it you can.