It’s true, some documentary filmmakers are blessed with an absolutely engrossing subject, and their skill behind the camera is negligible. If the topic, issue, or person is strong enough, who cares how amateur the man behind the camera is? Audiences will ignore it, too absorbed to even notice. It’s unfortunate, but just look at most music docs to see how lazy some directors can be; they’re only saved by the unquestionably great tunes and rock star life most of their stars went through. This film could’ve easily had that same fate. It peaks interest right off the bat: Mark Hogancamp, a victim of a beating that left him brain damaged and unable to remember most of his former life, creates an alternate reality consisting of meticulously designed dolls, made after people in his life. Thankfully, first time director Jeff Malmberg gives just the right amount of restraint and observance, avoiding exploitation at every step of the way. The result is probably one of this year’s strongest documentaries, the SXSW Grand Jury winning “Marwencol.”
Hogancamp’s beating left him needing many years of therapy, but he was unable to afford these costly sessions. Instead, he returned to life, got a simple job at a nearby Italian joint, and worked on his hand-eye coordination by customizing his own small dolls. These figures (friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc.) eventually led to the creation of the miniature village Marwencol (because, hey, they gotta live somewhere), which consists of a colorful cast of characters and fine detail, including a thorough pinky-size bar license to hang in the local pub. This escapism of his — he directs them in various WW2-set scenarios ripe for a daytime television program — offers him not only a creative outlet but a channel for him to deal with his emotions. He documents these stories with self-taken photographs, thousands of beautiful images sitting in a shoebox for only him to see. A local artist (with connections) takes notice of him and eventually is exposed to this second world of his, taken aback by the precision and care gone into this work. Before Mark knows it, he gets him an exhibit in New York, leaving the artist both nervous and ecstatic.
This kind of topic is ever so delicate, and there’s an uncomfortable feeling that somehow, the filmmakers are going to belittle the subject in an effort to connect with the most ignorant potential audience members, but it never happens. The film is respectful at all times, in fact, the perspective is so admiring of Hogancamp and his work that it’s difficult to think he’s nothing short of brilliant. Most of the movie follows the man around and gets into his life, learning about his past and present but mostly spending time with his work and detailing all of his stories. There are handfuls of scenes dedicated to this, picture after picture narrated along by Mark, a finely detailed story of lost love, revenge, evil, etc. It should be corny, but it’s not; it’s so heartfelt and passionate that it’s beautiful. Of course, his gorgeous photography helps, but there’s also the depth of his creation, and the more that his personal life is learned the more intricate and heartbreaking layers peel away.
Of course, Hogancamp doesn’t consider himself an artist in the slightest sense, and his slight discomfort in having an art exhibit of his private life is quite vocal. Closer and closer to his big show in New York, things get inevitably tense for him, and the film follows close behind as we learn what incited his almost near-death experience. Although it’s no “Catfish” mystery, the team wishes this reveal to be a secret so we’ll respectfully comply. What could’ve been spun as a tragedy instead also looks at it almost as a blessing in disguise, as Mark’s traumatic night enabled him to lose the bottle and creatively cope, also changing his old asshole-ish behavior to a more subdued and kind human approach. This kind of eye — one that looks at both sides of the equation, good and bad, no matter how strange (because, really, who’s going to talk about the benefits of getting their head bashed in) — is one rarely seen, with the most popular documentaries favoring one side of a subject and throwing the rest to the wayside. This approach works incredibly well and not only delves into Mark but also escapism, dual realities, and art in a very unpretentious fashion. What could’ve easily been a movie about a “weird guy” is actually a rather densely layered art piece of a man leading multiple lives.
Avoiding an easy pitfall into quirkiness and instead casting a sincere glance at a broken man essentially dealing with life in a fascinating way, “Marwencol” is one of a kind, it leaves an imprint on the brain that is tough to shake. It should prove refreshing for cinema-goers tired of the usual fare (pop-docs and political propaganda) and, dare we say it, there’s unlikely to be a better documentary this year. [A-]