Mark Hogancamp was an alcoholic. He was divorced. He worked 10 hours a day at a restaurant — as long as he wasn’t too drunk to show up. And then he was beaten, almost to death, outside of a bar by five men.
Mark had to begin his life all over again. He relearned how to walk and to write, and his memories of his former self are still slowly returning. Now, instead of boozing, he guzzles coffee and chain smokes. And when he could no longer afford the rehabilitative services that he needed, he created his own version of therapy: a Belgian town, populated by Barbie dolls and their male counterparts, set in World War II and starring an inanimate version of himself. And he built it in his trailer’s backyard.
The documentary Marwencol — named for the town, which itself is named for Mark and two of his friends — was featured on many top 10 lists last year and has made its way to the Olde North Charleston Picture House. It’s easy to compare the film to In the Realms of the Unreal, which told loner artist Harvey Darger’s sad and isolated story. Like Darger, Mark has created, and exists in, his own world. The doll version of himself stumbled upon Marwencol, at the time inhabited exclusively by women, while fighting in the war. He stuck around, built a bar, and was soon joined by other soldiers. They’re American, British, and even German, and they can stay as long as they promise to be nice to each other. The town provides an outlet for Mark in many ways; not only does it help him learn to control his damaged body, but it lets him act out tendencies, whether tender or violent, that he can’t in real life. And it gives him an opportunity to honor his loved ones, whose miniature equals become heroes and romantic leads.
In a brilliant move from the filmmaker, Jeff Malmberg, Mark is the storyteller in Marwencol. It’s almost as if Mark filmed the thing himself. What happened to him, and his struggles to readjust to the world, runs parallel to the vivid tale of his town. Whether he’s captured by the SS or gets his heart broken by one of the Barbies, the details of this universe are utterly precise and incredibly intimate. While there is the occasional interview with Mark’s friends and family, he (in both his real and imagined forms) takes up so much of the screen time that you really grow to know him.
While initially it may seem like the film has no central organization, a linear plot eventually develops: Marwencol, which Mark has also photographed, is discovered by a professional photographer. This work is eventually published in the art magazine Esopus, which leads to a gallery show in New York City. Esopus‘ editor, Tod Lippy, sums up Mark in the best way: There is no irony to him. Without even meaning to be, he is authentic in a way that feels rare nowadays. As the film unfolds, the audience discovers one particularly interesting aspect of his personality, but I won’t mention it specifically because I think it’s better if you find out about it yourself when you see the film. This trait seems to be the only real part of Mark to survive his beating, and it is an amazing revelation that makes him all the more intriguing.
While it is tragic what happened to Mark, he admits that it opened a door for him. He is a new person, a person with a passion and a talent, and he is a person that you should get to know.