[This review originally ran as part of our SXSW 2010 coverage. With the film now screening at HotDocs we repeat it here.]
Meet Mark Hogancamp. In April of 2000, Mark was attacked outside a bar
in New York State and literally beaten to death by a group of five
men. Though Mark would be revived by paramedics he would spend nine
days in a coma and awake brain damaged and so badly battered that his
own mother didn't even recognize him. The beating was so severe that
his entire memory was in tatters.
And so, having lost his own history, Mark went home on release and set about creating a new one, a fictional world called Marwencol. Built
from Barbie dolls and scale model army toys. It began - at least
partially - as a way to regain fine muscle control in his hands but
quickly became something much larger and far more significant. An alternate history of a life he may have had, a wishful projection of a life he would like to have, an organic self-made exercise in emotional therapy, a grand work of art. Marwencol is all of these things and a great deal more besides.
Film maker Jeff Malmberg has spent the past four years documenting Hogancamp's life and work and the results are astounding. Like the best works of Errol Morris, Malmberg's Marwencol hooks you in with the sheer oddity of Hogancamp and his creation, the extreme otherness of the man and his work inspiring a sort of voyeuristic curiosity, before subtly turning things on their head until the audience comes to the realization that they're really no different from Hogancamp at all.
Malmberg has created here an impressive portrait of both the man and his work, the long hours spent getting to know Hogancamp and the years of built-up trust paying enormous dividends in a sense of comfort, ease and total unguardedness from Hogancamp. And given Hogancamp's past, trust is surely not something easy to gain from him.
Though Hogancamp's story is one of extremes and radically unusual circumstance - I sincerely hope nobody reading this has undergone the kind of trauma that triggered Hogancamp's creation - it is also enormous affecting and emotional because it is, at its core, a perfectly universal tale. Hogancamp's art is the art of loneliness, the work of a man creating a community for himself where none exists.
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