'Marwencol': Documentary about a beating victim who builds a toy village to rebuild psyche

Mark Hogancamp constructs the village of Marwencol, peopled with detailed dolls of Nazis, GIs, and femmes fatales, in Kingston, N.Y.
Mark Hogancamp constructs the village of Marwencol, peopled with detailed dolls of Nazis, GIs, and femmes fatales, in Kingston, N.Y.
Posted: November 19, 2010

Mark Hogancamp, subject of the strange and moving documentary Marwencol, is a grown man who can be seen pulling his little toy Army Jeep and its occupants - incredibly detailed dolls, suited up in World War II-era garb - along the roads around Kingston, N.Y.

These dolls, and other GIs, and Nazis, and ravishing Russian femmes fatales, live in "Marwencol," a one-sixth-scale village that Hogancamp has painstakingly constructed in his backyard.

Hogancamp, in a very real sense, lives there, too.

A decade ago, as we learn in Jeff Malmberg's careful, considerate portrait, Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar by five men. He was beaten and left for dead. In a coma for nine days, in a hospital for 40, he lost his memory, had to relearn how to write, to walk.

And when he was able to, he returned home and began work on Marwencol - creating this town with its church and shops and Catfight Club, its beautiful women and brave soldiers, with characters modeled on family and friends. With its intricate working props (a tiny automatic that cocks and reloads) and the soulful expressions he painted on the dolls' faces, Hogancamp was honing his hand-eye coordination, his small-motor skills.

But this wasn't just physical therapy - it was psychological therapy, too. In the elaborately violent dramas he created, Hogancamp was working through his own brutal trauma.

And then he started photographing the amazing tableaux. And then an art magazine ran some photos, and a New York gallery offered to put up a show. The reclusive, reticent man could become an outsider art star.

Marwencol is about Hogancamp and his miniature alter-ego, about his photographs and his creative process. But it is also, on a deeper level, about how we process our experiences - good and bad, violent and mysterious - and how we try to build safe places in our lives.

And if those safe places are inhabited by dolls, does that make them any less real?


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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