Monday, November 15, 2010


One night, after leaving a bar, Mark Hogancamp would be savagely beaten by five strangers. He was comatose for over a week and awoke permanently damaged, forced to learn how to live again like a child just born. Indeed, he was a child, in certain regards. He had to learn how to write again, how to interact with other people. But most significantly, he had to learn who he was again—his memory of life before the accident had vanished, reduced to a few incomprehensible snapshots of lost moments. It was as if, Mark explains, “they kicked the memories out of my head.”

Marwencol, a fascinating and moving documentary from director Jeff Malmberg, explores Mark’s unique form of self-therapy. Struggling to find an outlet for his grief and anger, Mark constructs Marwencol, a Belgian town during the Second World War populated by Barbie dolls and miniature models representing his friends and family. Mark’s doll stand-in—an American soldier—discovers the town deserted, save for 27 women who avoided the Nazi purges. Unsurprisingly, he chooses to stay as de facto leader of the Barbie tribe, setting up a bar for passing soldiers looking to relax with a beer or two while watching one of the nightly catfights held for entertainment (don’t worry, Mark explains, all catfights are staged).

Much like a child at play with his toys, Mark invests the figures of Marwencol with a great seriousness (you can see for yourself on the film's website, which features a large selection of Mark's work). When he speaks of them, he speaks as if they were real. What happens to them really happens, at least in Mark’s telling. He takes photographs of these miniaturized backyard sagas—entire boxes filled with snapshots chronicling the history of Marwencol—until a neighbouring photographer discovers the man’s unique talent and brings it to the attention of the New York art world, where an eager cult following awaits. Little wonder—the photographs are beautiful. There’s no glibness in Mark’s scenes. The dolls move in the photographs much like real people, with expressive gestures and tragic weight. They live and they die, often violently.

Malmberg has given the film something of a redemptive arc—we follow Mark’s anxiety over his ultimately successful first gallery showing in New York—but the town casts a melancholy shadow. Mark not only invests Marwencol with his trauma, but also his loneliness. He craves companionship so nakedly it can almost be embarrassing (at one point, noting the marital status of a coworker, he sighs loudly, visibly disappointed). The dolls mediate Mark’s romantic frustrations, allowing him to build relationships where he cannot in real life.

In a certain sense, Mark is simply building up a world to take the place of the memories he lost, but the past finds its way into Marwencol, often in surprising fashion. In order to gain intimate access to the rich world contained within the Mark’s imagination, the film clings to his perspective, with the side effect being that we know as little of his past as he does. What does come out is that he was once married (where she went, we never learn), an amateur artist, and a drunk.

Remarkably, Mark has not touched a drop of alcohol since the attack. It’s as if he were a new person built out of the fragments of the old, with pieces missing. “I can’t remember what it tastes like,” he says impassively as he looks at a wall of liquor bottles at the pub where he works part-time in real life. And yet in his fantasy world, a determined gang of Nazis looking for Mark’s bar disturbs the peace of Marwencol. “Gimme a drink!” Mark rages for the camera, telling us how the Nazis cry out—how he once cried out, in his past life—while searching for booze.

So they capture his stand-in, and they torture him. One Nazi leaves a scar on the right side of his face—where he was most damaged after the assault, Mark notes—but he won’t tell. Another character is killed in a church, refusing to squeal. The town becomes a space for Mark’s anxiety over his drunken past to surface, and the storyline reveals a deep fear over this forgotten part of his self. If he were to recover his memory, would he recover his alcoholism as well? In glimpses of Mark’s old art, there is a self-portrait: Mark tied to a wooden post, shirtless, while a woman scars him with a knife. It is disturbingly echoed in the photograph of Mark’s stand-in, strapped to a post in the church, under the knife once again. There is continuity between the two halves of this man, buried however deeply.

Doll Mark is rescued this time, you’ll be thankful to hear (by the beguiling Belgian witch of Marwencol, who owns a time machine built out of the VCR that ate Mark’s favourite porno tape). But there’s something very poignant at work here beyond the fanciful escapes and surprise plot twists—a tragedy acted out with children’s toys, Shakespeare performed by Barbie dolls. At first, the town allowed Mark to imagine himself whole and healthy and loved. In the film’s crushing final moments, we see that this dream of a perfect self is no longer possible, as Mark’s stand-in inches closer to his real scars, both physical and emotional. This fantasy world accumulates sorrows of its own, until it is at last no longer an escape from reality, but rather a mirror of it.

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