Once upon a time Mark Hogancamp was an alcoholic and by all accounts an absent human being …until one night he was brutally beaten by a group of drunk teenagers and put into a coma for nine days. When he finally did wake up there was almost nothing left of the man he once was, saddled at thirty-eight year-old with brain damage that took nearly all of his memory and fine motor skills, so he had to re-learn everything. But when his insurance ran out only forty days into his therapy, he was made to leave the hospital. So in an effort to continue his journey toward a normal life, Marwencol was born, a 1/6-scale model make-believe village in World War II era Belgium.
Built entirely in his backyard, Hogancamp made Marwencol as a conduit for coping with all of his troubles. One of the major facets of this is rendering all of the dolls, models, and buildings, which helps Mark with regaining dexterity and steadiness. Another is likening every one of his dolls to people he knows, which seems to serve as a segue between his trauma-induced reclusiveness and reconnecting with the world. But perhaps the most important is the saga of Marwencol that acts as a sort of role-play for Mark to express his emotions purely. Mark has a doll version of himself living in Marwencol too, where he lives in a town full of women and owns and works in his own bar and stages catfights for his patrons’ entertainment and fights off the Nazi SS. The story he creates and the relationships and personalities within it are incredibly elaborate and the scenarios are all carefully photographed. At face value these actions might seem a little silly and somewhat obsessive. But watching this man walk his model jeep around for miles on the road to make sure the tires look authentic, his sincerity could not be clearer.
The film has a very free form narrative, playing out more like a nature special than a documentary, parsed together loosely by story points as it watches Mark’s process and culminates in the showing of his models and photographs at a gallery in Greenwich Village. Nevertheless first time director Jeff Maimberg makes an abundance from the little he has. Hogancamp’s photos of Marwencol, which are so astounding that if you let your eyes blur they could easily be of real people and situations, are displayed full-screen throughout the film and their worth-a-thousand-words quality is strong enough to break up an inevitably sluggish narrative with their tactful and artful placement. Maimberg also lets Mark speak on his own terms, which gives the movie an incredibly deep and human voice. This is a middle-aged guy who senses are constantly bombarded and in a state of turmoil as he tries to re-learn everything about himself and the world, and as you listen to him talk about his trauma and the fears it gave him, the idea of a grown man who copes by creating a make-believe world where he’s saved from torturous Nazis by a blue-haired, time-traveling witch doesn’t seem all that strange. Before his art show Mark confides his trepidations of displaying his therapy: what happens when these people judge his work, asking only how did he do it rather than why? It’s a striking line that can’t help but inspire personal reflection, confronting one on whether the motives to watch Marwencol come from some morbid fascination and need to judge or from genuine interest in the life and emotions of Mark Hogancamp, and it’s a poignant moment amongst a great many.