December 23, 2011 \ Geoff Birmingham
Marwencol: a struggle between reality and fantasy

dolls from documentary film Marwencol

A documentary about a grown man playing with dolls in his back yard wouldn’t seem, initially, like a very engaging film.  What makes it work, however, is the absolutely honesty and vulnerability of the film’s subject, Mark Hogancamp.

Mark was viciously attacked and beaten outside a bar in Kingston, NY in April 2000, and was in a coma for nine days afterwards.  The attack left him with extreme brain damage that destroyed all of his memory.  His recollection of the attack, however, is something he remembers well and it haunts him.  As a self-therapy of sorts, and a way to escape his fear of re-immersing himself into the real world, he creates an imaginary World War II-era village, Marwencol, in his back yard with dolls that represent himself and the people he knows. In the village he creates various dramas among the characters that reflect his imagination and the reality of his life.  He records the stories using a simple point and shoot camera to photograph his characters.

Mark is not shy about sharing his struggles since the attack – his fears of being out in the real world; his sorrow that he doesn’t have female companionship; his affection for a kind woman in his neighborhood who is married; his anger at the young men who attacked him.  In short, he is a very sympathetic character.  It is for this reason, that the stories he tells about the characters who populate Marwencol become so poignant.

Not surprisingly, one of the main characters residing in Marwencol is Mark himself.  Imaginary Mark falls in love and has romantic relationships with various women (including a character who represents his neighbor).  He fights battles against nasty SS soldiers.  He is taken prisoner by the SS and beaten.  His neighbor and another woman come to his rescue and kill the SS.

In a sad, rather than a derogatory way, Mark’s situation is pathetic.  He wishes that he could engage with the real world but acknowledges that he feels safer in Marwencol.  One of the most touching moments is when he tucks his dolls into bed and expresses his love for them before going to sleep himself. When his photography is discovered by an art gallery in New York City who offers to exhibit it, he is forced to leave Marwencol, and his anxiety as opening day for the exhibit approaches heightens.  “What will I wear?”  “How will I talk to people?”

He conquers his fears and attends the opening.  He is awkward though.  In the end, he asks himself and us as the audience: “Do I really need to leave Marwencol?”  It’s a very fair question.