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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Nov. 11, 2010 | 4:50 PM

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After hearing a description of Jeff Malmberg’s riveting documentary Marwencol, confusion may set in.  First, there’s the matter of the title.  It doesn’t exactly leap off the tongue.  When you hear a synopsis of the film, that it’s about a man beaten within an inch of his life in a bar fight who starts playing with dolls in his backyard, it still seems an unlikely subject for a movie.  Nothing about Marwencol is predictable or expected, and the deeper the viewer is drawn into its world, the more moving and utterly compelling it becomes.  Winner of a long list of prizes, including the Grand Jury awards for best documentary at SXSW and the Seattle International Film Festival, Marwencol is one of the most riveting and rewarding film experiences of the year.

Set in upstate New York in a tiny town called Kingston, Marwencol focuses on the aftermath of a brutal beating.  On April 8, 2000,  Mark Hogancamp was literally beaten to death.  Paramedics were able to revive him, but he had suffered extensive physical injuries, as well as brain damage.  Unable to afford therapy, he was discharged from the hospital with only vague memories of his previous existence.  He had to relearn almost everything, including basic language and motor skills.  On top of that, Hogancamp had to address the emotional trauma of his attack, which had instilled in him a great fear of the outside world.  Working in the backyard of the trailer where he lives, Hogancamp began creating Marwencol, a 1/6th scale World War II era town that he populated with dolls.  Nearly all of the dolls were based at least in part on people Hogancamp knew, from his mother to his former neighbor, even his attackers.  At first he uses the small dolls to impove his hand eye coordination, but as time passes, and Hogancamps own condition improves, he begins to concoct elaborate narratives involving the people of his town.

Part of what makes Marwencol so fascinating is the way it reveals Hogancamp’s struggle to exhume the bits and pieces of his former life.  Although in many ways he would certainly wish the beating hadn’t happened, he begins to realize that there are certain elements of the life he led that are better left in the past.  Formerly a blackout alcoholic, Hogancamp awoke from his coma and found that he had no memory of what booze tasted like, and more importantly, no desire to find out He finds fragments of his past in journals that he kept (mostly while drunk), and also learns that he was once married, but now finds himself alone.

The journals also reveal ample evidence of Hogancamp’s artistic talent.  He may have created them in a drunken stupor, but the journals are filled with detailed illustrations that show real skill.  Using these puzzle pieces as building blocks, Hogancamp begins taking photographs of the scenes he creates in his town, and in a very happy accident, the photographs are discovered by the publisher of an art magazine who wants to exhibit them in a New York City gallery.  Hogancamp is both excited and terrified by the prospect of venturing out into the world, and he’s forced to reckon with the question of whether he has a place outside of the town that he’s created.

Malmberg spent four years filming Marwencol, and he wisely chooses to allow Hogancamp to tell his own story.  It’s a tale that’s full of surprises, including one that’s revealed midway through the film which adds yet another layer to Hogancamp’s struggle to reconnect with society.  The filmmakers do an excellent job of portraying the tension Mark feels between venturing out into the world and remaining in the comforts of the town that he’s created.  Hogancamp at the end of the film is clearly a person who’s still got a long road ahead of him.  Marwencol may be his final destination or just a stop along the way.  Either way, the film leaves little doubt that it’s a magical place.

MARWENCOL opens at the NuArt in West L.A. on Friday, November 12th.  Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg is scheduled to appear for discussion at select screenings November 12th, 13th and 14th.  For more information, visit the Landmark Theatres website.


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