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Film Club: ‘Marwencol’

The Critics Discuss the Winner of Comic-Con’s Judge’s Choice

One of the photos taken by Mark Hogancamp of his one-sixth town Marwencol.

Credit: Cinema Guild

Above: One of the photos taken by Mark Hogancamp of his one-sixth town Marwencol.


The critics of the KPBS Film Club of the Air discuss the documentary "Marwencol."


Last month the critics of the KPBS Film Club of the Air discussed the documentary "Marwencol" that is now opening at the Reading Gaslamp Stadium Cinemas. You can listen to the audio from the Film Club.

You can also read my interviews with director Jeff Malmberg and producer Kevin Walsh. The film had its San Diego premiere last July when it screened as part of the Comic-Con Independent Film Festival. It walked away with the Best Documentary and Judge's Choice Awards.

Listen to our Film Club discussion for a rare opportunity to hear all three of the critics agree that this is a film you need to make an effort to see.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's move on to Marwencol, it's a documentary about the unique technique used by Mark Hogancamp after his traumatic brain injury. He created a village of dolls, Barbies and GI Joes, and meticulously decorated it all to resemble a World War II Belgian outpost. And then he began to his photograph his village called Marwencol, the art world discovers his work in this film, and we discover many levels to Mr. Hogancamp. We have a clip from Marwencol, this is where Mark Hogancamp introduces us to one of his dolls.

(Audio Recording Played).

HOGANCAMP: This is my mom, my mother. This is from the movie Goldfinger 007, Pussy Galore was her name. But anyway -- yeah, right? But it looks just like my mom. My mother came to visit, I said, mom, mom, look! There's you! You're attending bar. I said gee, yeah, okay. Didn't even look. Just walked right past it. You know? So it's like -- but that's my mom, you know? So I -- I gotta have my mom in here, in my town.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's a little clip from Marwencol, a new documentary. And Beth, Mark Hogancamp turned to assembling this village after a devastating injury. And we're told about it very early in the film. What happened to him?

BETH ACCOMANDO: Well, he was beaten into a coma, essentially, by five men outside of a bar. And it was, you know, after being in a coma for nine days, he came out of it, and he had -- he basically had to relearn almost everything. And in fact his mom holding up her pussy galore doll is introduced to us ask starts talking about the fact that it's really difficult to see your 30 something year-old son.

ANDERS WRIGHT: A great deal of brain damage.

ACCOMANDO: Yeah, relearn how to speak and how to walk and motor skills. And that's why he turned to these dolls. And I think it was originally, he started by building model kits, and he went to a hobby shop, and it was focusing on these very small details and putting these very small things together. And learning how to steady your hand, and learning how to paint something and put something together. And it was helping him to regain those motor skills. And it started as physical therapy and turned into kind of an emotional therapy afterward.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott, you know, the reaction to this documentary has been almost universally enthusiastic. What is it about Marwencol that you liked?

SCOTT MARKS: I'll be honest with you, I found the interplay between his dolls more fascinating than anything in the king's speech. This is one of those bits of -- I don't know if this is good film making. Is this someone -- is this a filmmaker who happened upon a subject who has such of a unique and strong visual style that he's basically aping this -- you know, his subject's art? I don't know of it's too early to tell. I'm gonna have to see another couple of films by the director. But this thing was so compelling to watch and filled with so much compassion that -- I couldn't help but be won over by this film.

ACCOMANDO: Well, I think it is a good director who at least -- I don't know if he's gonna be a great director. But I think he's smart enough to know how good his subject matter is and how to stay out of the way and how to present it. It's nice that he introduces each of these character, each of the real people in mark's doll with their doll, with their alter ego from Marwencol. And that's nice. That's a choice he made.

MARKS: No, there's no question about it. But any documentarian can't help but be influenced by their subject. There's no denying that.

WRIGHT: But I think what you're saying is, he uses a lot of the still photographs that Hogancamp has taken of the town as part of the film, but I think you have to. Because honestly it's his work that's really so incredible. These photographs are amazing. And what he also does, Hogancamp has created this narrative, this World War II sort of movie hero narrative that goes on in this town that stars him as the hero. And he sort of acts out these -- these scenarios, these stories with all these different characters and photographs them out. And the stories themselves allow him to gain access to the frustration that he has, the anger that he has, all of these feelings, and he documents them. Of but through this entirely different medium.

ACCOMANDO: But also it's what the director chooses to look at in terms of how Hogancamp is working with these dolls. There's a point at which I think he's dressing and undressing a doll and creating clothes for it. And it's -- the attention to the detail kind of the awkwardness he has in putting the clothes on and what he's talking about as he's doing, and those are all directing choices how you film him, what you choose to ask him, what you choose to show. But he does. He works out his own emotional problems through this World War II narrative.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Scott, you know, just so that people know, some of these photographs of this doll village, when they're blown up, if you don't know if it's a doll village, it can fool you, it looks like an actual photograph.

MARKS: The way in which he poses these characters, there's one shot where all the dolls are in a box. And they're all looking at the camera except a couple, and it is just -- I mean, I froze that shot, it was just amazing to look at. This is one thick I want to bring up. The film has a secret. A surprise. And I'm not gonna give it away. But in the press notes, it says it refers to a sensitive aspect of mark Hogancamp's personal life. And they don't want anybody to reveal it because it risks turning off audiences who are inclined to make snap judgments and who might benefit from seeing the film. If you tell an audience ahead of time that there is a secret in the film, doesn't that somehow spoil the secret? Doesn't the audience sit there and just lose concentration on the film waiting for the secret? I mean you saw it with The Crying Game.

ACCOMANDO: Did you just ruin this film?

WRIGHT: I think we just -- yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't think we did because, you know, the way that the revelations in this film keep on coming out while the documentary continues is a deliberate story telling method of the director. And I'm wonder, Anders, do you think that works?

WRIGHT: I feel like by the time we sort of got to that part of things, I guess I understand what those press notes mean. You get a better sense of who this guy really is and why his life has gone down this particular path. But in many ways, it's postscript. We've really spent the bulk of the film sort of watching him do this project. And he's a really fascinating and terribly tragic character. Because he's lost so much and now he's almost exclusively sort of right brained in the way he operates. He's got very little organization in terms of getting through life. But he's clearly just lonely and unhappy. And this is an outlet for him that allows him to be around other people. Be around women. And to actually sort of a hero instead of being somebody who was -- who had all of his -- who had everything taken away.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. We'll have closing remarks with Marwencol and talk about our other films as the film club of the air continues on These Days on KPBS.

Welcome back, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's the KPBS film club of the air with my guests, Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright, and we're just finishing up some comments on Marwencol, the documentary about a man who created a village of dolls and photographed them and created some very interesting art in the process. And I was just mentioning that I thought there was a direct sort of contrast between this documentary, and the celebrated documentary, exit through the gift shop, which knot an Oscar nomination. And that is, exit through the gift shop seems to be all about ironic art. Whereas this film seems to be about a man who [CHECK AUDIO] there was just that contrast for me, and I know that you wanted to point out, Beth, that you originally saw Marwencol at Comic-Con.

ACCOMANDO: Yeah, I was able to see it. Comic-Con has an international film festival that they run. And I wish more people would go to the films that they show there. Because every year I've seen some amazing work, especially in the documentary category. I was really happy that last July I was able to see this. It won not only best documentary, but also it won best in show. And I'm really happy that Redding cinemas, at the gas lamp, was willing to show it. I talked to them, and I pointed out, you know, this won at Comic-Con, it played once at -- or, no, it played twice at Comic-Con. Didn't have a very large crow there, I said it would be great to have it play down here. And they were really open to the idea because one of their other theatres I think in Dallas was showing it. So I'm just really happy that it's gonna have a chance to get an audience here.

WRIGHT: We were talking in the last film club about the best films of the year. And right now, we're kind of in this golden age of documentary, because they're so much easier to make than they ever have been. And people are coming up with some terrific films, and this is absolutely worth checking out when it gets here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott, final word.

MARKS: The one thing that disappointed me, [CHECK AUDIO] they said he constructed a town, and I kept awaiting an aerial pull back for this enormous almost, like set. But they're basically dioramas that he photographs much the same way that a comic book artist was sketch panels of it's a great film, it's a compelling film and it's one that -- this is a terrible time for movies unless you want to see all the awards nominees, and Redding is kind of like the antidote to that, they're bringing in a lot of films so check those local listings, folks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Marwencol opens at the Reading Gaslamp theaters February 11th.

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