It’s a movie about a man and his dolls. Or, perhaps, it’s about an outsider artist, one whose aw-shucks genius propels him into the spotlight. Perhaps, it’s a testament to the restorative powers of art and human imagination. Either way, Marwencol — rookie director Jeff Malmberg’s documentary about Kingston, N.Y. photographer-artist Mark Hogancamp’s backyard-diaroma universe — compels simultaneously as an art documentary and a fascinating character study. And it might be one of the strongest docs released in 2010.
That begins with Hogancamp. After he’s jumped and mercilessly beaten by five men — suffering brain damage in the process — Hogancamp’s previous life is shattered. He must relearn everything, his memories included, and the scraps he gathers from his old journals are less than savoury: He was a divorced alcoholic, a disturbed man with an above-average penchant for illustration.
When he’s turned away from rehabilitation for financial reasons, he approaches it on his own terms, choosing to rebuild, in his words, “his imagination” first. Thus, Marwencol is born: It’s a fictional post-Second World War Belgian town, re-created as a backyard diorama with dolls, model trucks and found items (including a hollowed-out VCR).
While his construction is a clear attempt to regain his motor skills, Marwencol proves to be much more than that. That his town is visually stunning — Hogancamp constructs his expansive universe with immaculate painted detail, assigning real-life personalities to its doll inhabitants — is only the beginning. The real genius, here, is that Hogancamp uses it to reconstruct (and, to a degree, regain ownership of) his shattered psyche: Through the stories and personas he creates with Marwencol’s characters, he’s able to confront his demons and trauma head-on.
It’s a world that’s remarkably creative, one that hints at Hogancamp’s latent genius. Each of Marwencol’s characters has a backstory of literary proportions. There’s plenty of tension, too, when Hogancamp introduces romantic trysts and violent attacks from the SS. Heck, he even introduces time travel into the fold. Marwencol combines childlike wonder with an adult’s accrued intellect, and the results are nothing short of stunning.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Hogancamp documented the goings on of his town through thousands of photos. These are clearly the source of Malmberg’s fascination, and the director is content to let these built-for-cinema images propel Marwencol’s narratives. He’s not the only one who noticed, though; art magazine Escopus publishes his photos, too, eventually landing Hogancamp an exhibition in Greenwich Village. From here, the documentary takes a sharp turn — Hogancamp’s brainchild is forced to go public, leading to a new set of questions: How will the public react to something so intensely personal? Can one man’s therapy be considered another’s art? Do both audiences and unintentional artists get hung up on the purpose of the exhibit, and more importantly, does it even matter?
Those questions are left to the viewer to decide. Whatever the answer, though, it’s most surprising that this film rarely sags. Credit Malmberg’s laissez-faire technique, here: He leaves the editorializing to Hogancamp, whose art and irony-free interviews carry the doc. Accordingly, the film exudes a palpable warmth, and that’s a credit to both men; it’s rewarding to get lost in the fantasy world of Marwencol as is, and Malmberg lets viewers do just that.