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With: Mark Hogancamp
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Jeff Malmberg
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 83
Date: 03/12/2010

Marwencol (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

It Takes a Village

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mark Hogancamp isn't a famous artist, nor is he a famous person. His claim to fame is simply that he was jumped and beaten half to death outside a bar one night. The attack robbed him of nearly everything; at age 38, he had to re-learn to speak, write, walk, and nearly everything else. Most of his memories are still gone. He looks at pictures of his ex-wife with bemusement, noting that she was pretty but not recognizing her at all.

Director Jeff Malmberg could have taken this story in a heroic/inspiration direction, but thankfully he does not. He lets Mark talk, and show us around. It's not long before Mark takes us to "Marwencol," his miniature, 1/6th scale village nestled behind his house, built as a kind of instinctive, compulsive therapy. There, several dolls occupy the town. One -- called "Hogie" -- represents Mark, and others represent the people he knows (Malmberg gets his own doll). There are also several Barbies for female companionship. In Marwencol, Mark plays out little WWII stories about SS troops, attacks, rescues, romances, and a bar where controlled catfights take place. Very often, his stories are thinly disguised re-creations of his own attack.

Mark also shoots pictures of his little village. Malmberg begins quietly showing these pictures early and often, without letting on that they're Mark's. Their power is instantly evident. As one interviewee says, the pictures aren't taken as any kind of ironic statement. Mark clearly loves his little people and he photographs them straightforwardly, with affection. Their compositions and realism are striking. And yet, Mark isn't driven by any urgency. Apparently, Mark's light meter is broken, and he very patiently learned by shooting photos, sending them in for developing, waiting, checking the prints, adjusting the lens and trying again.

When not showing us "Marwencol," Mark tells humble little stories of his recovery. Mostly he misses women. He has crushes, but they don't come to much. He still has trouble in many things. He's afraid of getting attacked again. He takes a toy jeep out for walks by the road so that it has a realistically battered look. He says he must pay attention and stay on the white line, or else he'll wander out into traffic.

Eventually, Mark's photos are shown around and he is offered his own photography show in New York City. Once again, Marwencol could have gone in a fairly typical direction, demonstrating how great fame is and how it will eventually rescue this poor, damaged soul. Mark isn't really interested in fame, and the film doesn't show the outcome of the show. Rather, it saves something rather unusual and more personal for its final third.

Most documentary filmmakers, presented with this material, would have shaped their own stories out of Mark's travails, and most of them would have followed the routine formula, already seen in many other documentaries this year alone. Malmberg instead takes a gentle approach. He's patient and coaxing, and he lets Mark grow comfortable for the camera. Mark eventually expresses his regret and rage along with his natural charm and good nature. "Marwencol" is not the subject of the movie, nor the art show, nor Mark's miraculous recovery. The three-dimensional Mark Hogancamp is the subject, and this simple idea is so rare and so refreshing that you'll remember him for some time to come.

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