Marwencol (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Jeff Malmberg
viewed: 04/19/11

The real life that the documentary Marwencol details is compelling and fascinating.  In 2000, after leaving a local bar Mark Hogancamp, then 38, was attacked and brutally beaten by a group of five men.  Hogancamp suffered brain damage after this unprovoked attack and it required months upon months and years and years to recover.

Before the attack, Hogancamp was a bit of a drunk with a not particularly notable life.  But in his recovery, having no memory of himself or his life, he found himself in a frightening world where nothing was familiar or the same and he lived in fear of another attack.

In a somewhat random selection of hobbies, he began collecting, crafting and creating dolls for a fictional WWII-era town which he photographed the figures, developed narratives for the characters, and worked through his complex world of loves, pain, brutality, and fantasy as a form of therapy.  Initially, he took to the hobby as a way of working with his hands, which shook too much for him to draw (which some shots of earlier diaries seem to suggest he did well).  Initially physiological, his hobby evolved into his entire town, Marwencol.

Hogancamp is a classic outsider artist.  His doll figures are crafted with intensive detail and his photographs, the telling of an evolving, sprawling narrative, featuring his attackers as the Nazi villains.

His story is fascinating and his art is quite compelling, especially in the context of his life-changing experience and how it informs what he creates.  Part of the beauty of his art is how everything is created through his personal need and narrative, not created as “art”.

Part of the story that the film covers is the “discovery” of Hogancamp by an artist who lives nearby and Hogancamp’s resultant exposure in an art magazine.  All of this leads to an art show in New York of his work (and probably this film itself).  And part of the question that the film hints at is “What will become of his art when it becomes ‘art’?” When his work might become more self-conscious or aware once he’s no longer merely producing it for himself.

But really, the most fascinating thing is Hogancamp’s story itself, his art, or if you will, his creations.  For Hogancamp, his creations were a personal dialog, a therapeutic and specific outlet for his complex self-examination.  From the outside, it’s clearly art in the sense that it’s an amazing crafted work and it could be placed in context in an art gallery or museum.

The film is functional itself.  Documentaries can sometimes succeed despite themselves when the subject matter is strong and compelling.  As long as the documentarian doesn’t “screw it up”, when you have a story like Hogancamp’s, you’ve got something well worth exploring.  And through the film, I was really drawn in.  But as the film has sat with me for a few days, I began to feel that the film didn’t manage to make much more of the story, either by finding something more profound or suggesting something beyond its core story.

The question about what happens to Hogancamp after his art show is left unanswered.  If there was a question of how healthy it is to make “an artist” out of him, to commercialize his work or his story, the film certainly doesn’t turn that question on itself.  I feel, as intriguing as it was, I wanted a bit more.  And really it’s not such a knock at the film but more a comment on how fascinating I found the whole of Hogancamp’s real and fictive world.  Maybe there will be a book written or some other telling that perhaps reaches deeper.  It’s a sad story, though one with elements of hope and the strangeness and weird beauty of some human souls.

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