Friday, October 8, 2010

Unconventional Therapy

Directed and edited by Jeff Malmberg
Released by The Cinema Guild
Opens October 8, 2010

A decade ago, Mark Hogancamp, then 38 years old, was viciously beaten by five young men outside a bar in Kingston, New York, two hours north of Manhattan. He was in a coma for several days with severe brain damage and, upon regaining consciousness, had to basically relearn everything to once again become a functioning adult. He also had little memory of what or who he was.

Since he was unable to afford any kind of standard therapy, Hogancamp decided on an unorthodox form of self-help by recreating an entire (fictional) Belgian town during the World War II era in his backyard. He named the place “Marwencol,” and the citizens who populate its streets and buildings—at 1/6 scale—are dolls whom he puts through their wartime paces as the good guys (Allies) and bad guys (Nazis), including his alter-ego hero, Captain Hogancamp.

Hogancamp's ingenious, self-administered therapy has been documented by director Jeff Malmberg in Marwencol, a startling portrait of a man living two lives, one in Kingston and one in Marwencol, that asks the probably unanswerable question: which is Mark Hogancamp's “reality”?

In his alternate-reality Belgian town, Hogancamp's dolls play out elaborate battle sequences, espionage plots, double-crossings and romantic scenes. As one of his friends notes, the regular blood-lettings on display are definitely part of Hogancamp's way of dealing with what happened to him that April evening in the year 2000: vengeance is a main theme in the ongoing “story” of Marwencol.

On the question of how his friends and others in Kingston feel about his elaborate project, Malmberg's interviews show that the majority seem to realize the importance of Marwencol as therapy for Hogancamp: indeed, several people are quite pleased with the fact that their “stand-ins” are among the town's heroes and heroines.

When Hogancamp begins taking photographs of his ongoing wartime dramas, his town's existence is elevated to another level: no longer is it simply therapeutic, but it becomes “art,” particularly after the photos are published in a magazine. (Malmberg shows several of the photos, whose intriguing angles bring another layer of perspective to Hogancamp's characters' stories.) Soon, he must make a decision whether or not to leave the comfy confines of Kingston—he has not left town since the attack—and go to New York City to present the town of Marwencol as a living work of art to audiences.

Hogancamp might have been turned into a kind of freak by a filmmaker with less sympathy, so Malmberg must be commended for exhaustively recording the many steps that continue to mark Hogancamp's attempts at full recovery. With impressive journalistic evenhandedness, Marwencol the movie transforms the fictional town of Marwencol into a riveting, multi-layered real-life adventure.

No comments: