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Review: ‘Marwencol’

Comic-Con Independent Film Fest’s ‘Judge’s Choice’ Winner Opens

One of the images of the one-sixth scale village created by Mark Hogancamp in...

Credit: Cinema Guild

Above: One of the images of the one-sixth scale village created by Mark Hogancamp in the documentary "Marwencol."


KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with the filmmakers of "Marwencol" and has this review.


Imagine a one-sixth scale world populated by Barbies and GI Joe dolls. That's the world of “Marwencol” (opening February 11 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium 15), the documentary that won the "Judge's Choice" award at the Comic-Con Independent Film Festival last year. You can listen to my radio feature.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cinema Guild

Mark Hogancamp setting up for a photo in the documentary "Marwencol."

Mark Hogancamp was the victim of an assault that left him in a coma. When he awoke he had to relearn everything. So Hogancamp developed his own therapy. He created a one-sixth scale model town peopled by GI Joe and Barbie dolls, and set it during World War II. The world of Marwencol (the name is taken from a blending of the names Mark, Wendy, and Colleen) was a reaction to his attack that took place in 2000. Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg met Hogancamp six years later.

"He was very introverted but by 2006 he was ready to talk it out," says Malmberg, "The filming process kind of represented a chance for him to own what he had been going through by talking about it so I just tried to be as quiet as I could and just listen."

And what Hogancamp tells Malmberg is that "Everyone wishes they could have a double that could do things they could never do."

So one woman Hogancamp knows has an alter ego in Marwencol that's dating Steve McQueen. Hogancamp creates alter egos for everyone he knows.

Malmberg interviews Hogancamp's friends with their doll alter egos in the frame. Hogancamp's mom is represented in Marwencol by the Pussy Galore doll from the movie "Goldfinger." Malmberg shows Hogancamp picking up a newly ordered doll from the post office, "When I open that box," Hogancamp says, "the first thing I look at is their face and who does it remind me of that I want to portray with an alter ego."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cinema Guild

One of the photographs of Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp.

There's also a doll in the town that represents him. The dolls then act out an adventure story that Hogancamp creates, continually incorporating things from his own life. Working on this miniature world provides physical therapy by making him work on fine motor skills.

"Mark is constantly playing with little tiny things that I can't believe he can control with the situation his body and brain is in," Malmberg states, "his eye-hand coordination is still difficult and yet everyday he pushes himself through this self-made therapy to create these wonderful scenes. So to me it was all about getting in there with these macro lenses to get in as tight as I could to try and see just how much Mark was struggling to create this world called Marwencol."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cinema Guild

The women of Marwencol.

Malmberg shows us Hogancamp dressing the dolls -- down to a pair of Manolo slingbacks -- and working with tiny props.

"Everything is real," Hogancamp says in the film as he places gun in the hand of one of doll's hands, "the slide on the 45, the clip even comes out so that adds to my ferocity of getting into it, into the story because I know everything is real."

Hogancamp’s total immersion in the world he creates is fascinating to watch. It also serves to help him with his psychological rehabilitation.

"I created my own therapies," Hogancamp tells the district attorney, "and this was one of them. I could act out my revenge and my rage through photographs."

But Hogancamp’s therapy goes one step further. It becomes his art. Each time he creates a scene in Marwencol he takes photos of it. Those photos caught the eye of Esopus Magazine editor Tod Lippy.

"The thing that struck me about Mark’s work is there’s no irony he’s in the work it’s very authentic you don’t see it that often."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cinema Guild

Mark Hogancamp with one of his photos at an exhibit.

The photographs are amazing in their attention to detail. If you look quickly you think the photos are of real people because the poses and scenes are so natural.

"Because he shoots these photos every day," director Jeff Malmberg explains, "he was like a filmmaker himself. So I found that as it went on it really was a kind of collaboration. I would show him scenes and we would talk about what it meant, and it was nice to have someone to compare notes with especially when you had this responsibility to tell someone's life correctly and to create this portrait that was honest."

Producer and cinematographer Kevin Walsh says, "He's very earnest about his art so we are very earnest in our approach."

That's a marked contrast to the slew of recent documentaries that use the medium in order to comment on it. "I'm Still Here" was a faux documentary, "Catfish" might not be real, and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" might be a Banksy prank. But "Marwencol" has no artifice. It is a very traditional documentary that puts the subject in the foreground.

"The way it's been put," says Walsh, "is that Mark is the picture and Jeff is the frame."

Trailer: 'Marwencol'

The trailer for the independent documentary "Marwencol."

Malmberg, who came to documentary directing from a background in editing, takes his cue from veteran filmmakers from the 60s like Albert Maysles. The success of "Marwencol," though, is not merely the result of a fascinating subject but also the result of distinct choices made by the filmmakers.

"There's a way to approach Mark," Walsh says, "where it's like an oddball thing, like an exhibit in a freak show. He's such a strange guy and he does these strange things. But Jeff's take was to basically mirror the way he himself got to know Mark. You get to know the person first. Because of that connection, Mark connects with audience on a human level and you see him as a real three dimensional person rather than a character or an exhibit."

“Marwencol” is a mesmerizing documentary, and like Mark Hogancamp it continually surprises you. It may also be one of the best films you'll see all year.

Companion viewing: "Gray Gardens," "Drakmar: A Vassal's Journey," "Pecker," "Born into Brothels"

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