2010, Jeff Malmberg - 2010
Back when this documentary hit the indie-cinema circuit in Toronto in 2010, I took note of Marwencol, given that it seemed to be about a dude playing with action figures, something I've taken a pretty keen interest in over my life (action figures, not dudes playing with action figures) though definitely not to the same extreme. I didn`t really know the finer details of the documentary, so beyond the action figures it was quite the revelation.
Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten, unprovoked, outside a bar in his hometown by five men, putting him in a coma and causing permanent brain damage. After his rehabilitation therapy is cut off, Hogancamp finds his own therapy in the town of Marwencol, a 1/6 scale WWII village populated by a bevvy of soldiers and civilians, many of whom are based off figures in Hogancamp's own life. Having developed a rich history and storyline that's equal parts Casablanca and facets of his own life story, and perhaps a little ersatz Tarantino, Hogancamp takes to documenting the meticulous details of Marwencal's story through photography.
As it turns out he's a prodigy in photography, and, championed by an art magazine, earns his own art exhibit in New York City. Malmberg's film brilliantly juggles Hogancamp's history and recovery, dealing with the lasting effects of the beating on his life, the story of Marwencol both in its inception and the story that is told within it, and the artistic awakening. There's an additional revelation late in the film that sheds dramatic light on Hogancamp's character, the incident that brought him to where he is, and how he presents himself in New York. It would be easy to sensationalize the reveal (which I'm intentionally being vague about, because in many ways it's feels like such a natural thing once it is revealed).
It's an exceptionally powerful character study, one that isn't directly tragic, nor profoundly uplifting, but with elements of both. It would be easy to paint it as a curiosity or freakshow, but it's such an impeccably well crafted film, that it's sharply affecting, and decidedly memorable.
There's a website for Marwencol, with pictures of the town and details for buying Hogancamp's artwork, plus the news of a new storybook which tweaks the comic book geek in me. Marwencol, the documentary is a fascinating story, but Marwencol the town is a fascinating place all its own, and done right, it could make a remarkable fumetti.