“Marwencol” is a small Belgian town with a church, a bar, a community of beautiful young women who happily stage cat fights for the amusement of men, and it was one of the few places during WW II that American G.I.s, Allied troops and Nazis drank elbow-to-elbow in harmony.
The town is also entirely the creation of Mark Hogancamp’s imagination, a place he built in his backyard an effort to rehabilitate his mind and body after he suffered a savage beating outside a bar several years ago.
Pretty much since they day Man crawled out of the swamp, we’ve been wrestling with questions of identity. Are we products of nature or nurture? What makes who we are? Sadly, it often takes a tragedy, like Hogancamp’s, to give us a truly insightful look at how identity is developed. As with any artist, it is through his work that Hogancamp began to reveal himself to himself, and ultimately his audience. Watching the story, along with Mark’s sense of self, develop is hypnotic, director Jeff Malmberg expertly unfolds the saga.
The attack Hogancamp suffered was so brutal that all his memories were literally beaten out of him. He had to relearn how to do everything—eat, write, dress—and had to ask friends and family what kind of person he was before. He would thumb through boxes of photos of things like his wedding to try rebooting his memories, but to no avail.
He soon began building Marwencol in his backyard, a 1/16th scale model populated by Barbies, G.I. Joes and other action figures —most serving as alter egos for his friends and family-- as well as tanks, jeep and trucks. As the world developed, he would document the townfolks’ history with an old, half busted camera, capturing remarkable portraits of his make-believe world, ones that eventually catch the eye of a New York City art gallery.
Often, gaining notice is about the worst thing that can happen to an artists, as they try to adjust to their view of our view of them. But for Hogancamp, the attention appears (at least for now) to have been a blessing, forcing him to confront who he is and how he fits into the world beyond his backyard.
Contemplating the idea of going to “The big city” and sharing himself with the world at large, he realizes that “What they do with it is up to them, I’m not liable for their feelings or how they perceive it,” Hogancamp notes at one point.
Director Jeff Malmberg masterfully unfolds the story behind Hogancamp’s story, but frustratingly never looks at why he retreated to WW II (cuz his name is “Hogan Camp,” like “Hogan’s Heroes”? Who knows?). There’s an old photo of Mark in what appears to be a sailor’s uniform, but there’s no talk of a military career, or a previous interest in the conflict. But there are other parts of Mark’s past that Malmberg wisely holds back until the end, lest they muddy or distract the view of Mark’s work and magic.
Luckily, the deleted scenes included in the “Marwencol” home video package are great. We finally get a cue as to why Mark chose WWII, as well as an explanation of the name Marwencol, why Malmberg failed to put those into the original film is anyone’s guess. At only 82-minutes long, the film easily could’ve stood another five minutes of footage. The extra scenes also include several brief adventures in Marwencol, and more looks at Hogancamp and his process. Even if you’ve already seen the film in the theater, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on the Blu-ray or DVD.
Hogancamp’s courage in discovering his own kind of therapy, as well as himself, and his willingness to share "Marwencol" present a rare opportunity not to be missed.