Mark Hogancamp was minding his own business in a bar one evening a few years ago. He was badgered by a few drunken college students, who called him named, and demanded a fight. Mark exited the bar, somewhat drunk, trading surly put-down with the kids. The kids jumped him outside of the bar, and beat him savagely. Mark went to a hospital, where he lay in a coma for a few days. When he awoke, his brain had pretty much been wiped clean, and he had to learn to eat and speak and walk all over again. His face is still scarred from the experience.
His insurance money ran out before his rehabilitation was complete. He was able to get a job, working two days a week, at his local diner in Alaska, making meatballs. Only a few memories of his old life had returned, but the rest was a blur. He doesn’t remember having been married once. He looks at a picture of his old wife. “She was really pretty,” he remarks, more with a baffled discovery that a melancholy. He does remember that he was an alcoholic, and is astonished that he no longer has any craving for alcohol. It was his alcoholism, he figures, that drove away his wife. He finds some old pictures he once drew, and he was very talented, but his hands shake too much to try that again.
Mark Hogancamp, as a form of therapy, retreated to default position of childhood play. He would insulate himself with a new esoteric hobby: he would collect dolls, dress them up in period costumes of the late 1940s, and pose them for photographs. He built a bar that his doll avatar would run, and that would feature playful, choreographed catfights a few times every day. Eventually his bar sprang out into more buildings, and it wasn’t long before Mark had created Marwencol, a fictional Belgian village, living in an energetic bliss following WWII.
As the narrative became more complicated, and more characters were added to the epic of Marwencol, the more the pictures began to pile up. It was only a matter of time before someone discovered the pictures, and published them.
Jeff Malmberg‘s “Marwencol” is one of the most emotionally raw, relatable and candid of any documentary film. No were dissection of hipster outsider art, it actually gives the impression of a friendship; like Hogancamp, as he grows to trust you, reveals more and more about himself, until you realize that you’re listening to secrets that he is, himself, only now discovering he had. We see the horrid damage that was done to Hogancamp back on that fateful night outside of the bar, and just how deep his mental and psychological wounds run. We see his ambivalence on his state. He clearly knows he has trouble with the outside world, and is possessed of a dangerous and earnest and awkward romantic idealism that we have when we’re 12 years old; he has a crush on a married neighbor that manifests itself in broody romantic confessions and brief social pauses.
As Mark’s confessions become more candid, so too does the narrative in Marwencol become more elaborate. Not only does Mark have an avatar in Marwencol, but so do all of his friends and co-workers. He also has a pair of competing imaginary girlfriends in Marwencol. One is a saintly lady, the other a superpowered vixen. The vixen also has a time machine that is constructed out of a VCR.
Eventually Mark’s photos are featured in museums in New York. I don’t want to say too much more about Mark’s story, leaving it for you to discover, but watching “Marwencol” will make it feel like Mark is a close friend of yours. A true outsider, recovering from crippling damages, vaguely remembered addictions, and eager to include you in his story. “Marwencol” is one of the best documentaries of the year.