It’s difficult to say whether Jeff Malmberg’s documentary is more uplifting or unsettling. On the one hand, it’s the story of a man who came out of a coma that resulted from a terrible assault brain damaged, but who struggled to recover some of the memories he’d lost and relearn many of the basic tasks he was initially unable to perform. In the process he developed a means of self-therapy that not only aided in his recovery but earned him some recognition as an artist. But on the other hand, the gradual revelation of his past life and present obsessions, as revealed in his work, might make one a bit queasy.
The subject is Mark Hogancamp, who was attacked outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York by five thugs—though the circumstances behind the assault aren’t revealed until an hour into the film. He’s first encountered well after the event, after he’s created in his backyard the eponymous “town,” supposedly a German World War II village, populated by dolls and action figures named after his friends and acquaintances, and in which he stages scenarios of his own devising—pulpish, often violent narratives that involve his surrogate’s torture. Eventually his hobby, which he sees as a sort of self-therapy, catches the attention of people who become instrumental in using the photos Hogancamp takes of his little world as the basis of a New York City gallery exhibit, where Mark is feted as a natural-born artist.
Malmberg has constructed his film very cagily, gradually revealing facets of Hogancamp’s story—the alcoholism he rejected after his recovery, his struggle to recapture glimpses of his former life by studying photos and mementos, and the like—while withholding one salient fact about him until it’s more than half over. Excerpts from interviews with friends and supporters, who often hold up the dolls that represent them in Hogancamp’s backyard village, are added to the mix, filling out the portrait of the man. And there are sequences that focus on the village as Hogancamp narrates some of the more purple episodes that he’s envisaged happening there.
“Marwencol” raises the issue of the availability of medical help for people like Hogancamp, whose injuries have resulted in mental difficulties but who lack the financial resources to continue treatment. But it does so almost off-handedly, without harping on the matter. Its emphasis is on painting a portrait of an individual who suffered a debilitating act of violence and has struggled to remake his life through means that might seem strange but have had a measure of success. And though there’s poignancy to the picture it draws, it doesn’t get maudlin or mawkish in telling the tale. Like Hogancamp’s life, “Marwencol” is cinematically raw, untidy and sometimes positively odd, but it’s also revealing, fascinating, unsettling and ultimately quite touching.