Therapy, art and adventure in 'Marwencol'

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011

Meanwhile, in Marwencol, the S.S. finally invaded the town after hearing rumors of it. Mark Hogencamp, protector of the inhabitants and proprietor of the local bar, is kidnapped, tortured and held prisoner in the church. In one version of the story, the women, sick of waiting for the men to come up with a plan, burst into the chapel and take out all of the guards. In another version, Deja Thoris, the Belgian witch of Marwencol, uses her time machine to come to the rescue.

Cinema Guild, courtesy of cinema guild / Cinema Guild, courtesy of cinema guild
Cinema Guild, courtesy of cinema guild / Cinema Guild, courtesy of cinema guild

This is just one of the many tales told in “Marwencol,” the fascinating and heartwarming new documentary by director Jeff Malmberg, which explores the art and self-directed therapy of photographer Mark Hogencamp. The film opens in Juneau this week.

In real life, Hogencamp was beaten into a coma one night outside of a bar by five assailants. After months of rehabilitation, he was left with lasting physical and mental trauma. His brain injuries caused him to lose much of his memories, and he had to learn basic things like writing and walking. Without a proper outlet for coming to terms with his new existence, he created the world of Marwencol, a fictional place in Europe during the time of World War II, modeled with buildings, G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls in his backyard. Hogencamp invents characters and stories, and captures moments of his world in photographs.

Without seeing the resulting work, this might simply sound quaint or sad. Hogencamp’s efforts are anything but. There is a stark realism, a natural posture, and an obsessive attention to detail that captures the imagination. Everything seems real. On a few occasions, it is unclear that what we are being shown is a diorama of action figures on a 1/6th scale. The expressions and moods of the models are as natural as real place, real actors, or even real people.

Many of the characters in Marwencol are based on real people Hogencamp knows. His mother makes an appearance, as does his former attorney, some of his friends and coworkers, even his attackers from the past. Colleen, his former love interest (in Marwencol) is modeled after the real Colleen, whom he met shortly after getting out of the hospital. Some of the real versions make appearances in the film, alongside their miniature copies, and the resemblance is startling, and blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

Hogencamp not only has a grasp on reality, he very clearly articulates his appreciation for the important symbolism of the events that transpire in Marwencol. His timidity to engage in the larger real world around him is made all the more dramatic when he, and his work, is “discovered,” featured in an arts magazine, and put together for an art show in Manhattan. As Hogencamp himself says, everyone wishes they had a double that could do things they themselves cannot do.

Among the more poignant moments are when Hogencamp is looking at mementos of his first life, his “drunk journals,” old photographs and videos. We see drawings from “before,” which shows the work of a gifted young artist who can no longer keep his hand steady. We learn startling details, even the impetus of the attack on him, and the connections between Marwencol and real life become stronger. His attempts at discovering who he was before seems to be important to figure out who he is now, and making peace with it.

Despite the explosive activities in Marwencol, there is possibility of peace there. Elsewhere there is a war going on, but in town everyone has to get along. There are beautiful women and brave men everywhere. The good are avenged and the wicked are punished.

Documentaries always run the risk of being exploitative of its subjects, and that risk is amplified when dealing with someone working through personal trauma and uncomfortable with the lens being turned on them. Malmberg treats Hogencamp, his life and his art, with compassion, however, and “Marwencol” never approaches the feeling of something manipulative. If anything, it is a strong affirmation of art as therapy. The viewer is left with a frank, layered narrative about how one incredibly creative person has dealt with crisis and trauma and, if not having overcome it, at least continuing on the path of healing. Like the town of Marwencol, Hogencamp’s recovery is a work in progress.

“Marwencol” will be opening at the Gold Town Nickelodeon (171 Shattuck Way) in Juneau this week on Thursday, March 24 at 7 p.m., and will be on screen through March 27. For showtimes, go online at or call 586-2875. For those outside of the capital city, definitely check out the film when it becomes available on your media source of choice. For more information about the film, visit its website at, which includes galleries with Hogencamp’s photographs and stories, a highly recommended accompaniment to the film.

• Richard Radford may be reached at

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