Marwencol is a 2010 documentary by filmmaker Jeff Malmberg, but it’s also the name of a fictional town created entirely for the alter ego of one man. That man is Mark Hogancamp, and in 2005 he was brutally beaten outside a local bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York. Mark was beaten so bad that he lost much of his memory and the use of his motor skills. Slowly, he recovered and part of this process of recovery was through both the physical and mental stimulation of creating his own, private town where he could control every aspect of his life and the lives of all those around him.
The extremely unique and interesting thing about this process for Mark, is that he’s fully aware of what it is he’s doing, doesn’t think of it as a joke and uses it as his therapy that he otherwise wouldn’t be receiving. Maybe this is best and most effective way for him to communicate with others, and maybe this is what enables him to handle social interaction. His town of dolls is comprised of many of his own friends and loved ones, not to mention just other people from his community that know him. Fortunately, many of them react kindly to the fact that they’re living an alternate life in Mark’s backyard; this is the kind of hope Mark needs around him.
It’s clear though eventually, that Mark is not really able to be himself within his community and so is forced to rely on his accepting (and makeshift) community of Marwencol to get the support and love that he needs. The documentary works on two distinct levels and slowly finds its groove about a little over half way through. The first level is the alternate lives and story that is currently taking place within the mind of Mark and the makeshift world of Marwencol (“A town in Belgium,” he says, incidentally). The second level is how Mark’s world (and consequentially his art) is exploited, and not in, what I perceive as, an effort to help Mark get back on his feet. This is where many viewers may disagree with me.
The film begins to slowly and slyly reveal that Mark is a closeted cross-dresser and even points to the evidence that this fact revealed five years ago may have been what prompted him to be attacked and beaten senseless on his way home one night. So now Mark’s got a real problem again, because his “handlers” who “discovered” him have set up his first showing in none other than New York City at a small gallery called White Column. It’s like a real life version of Great Expectations and Mark is riddled with concern over the following weeks as he is basically exposing an entire section of his mind, heart and soul to the nimrods that strut around Greenwich Village and pretend to know or accept anything that passes their valueless scrutiny. On the night of his opening Mark is really only concerned about one thing and that’s what he looks like. For the past few days, he’s been pining to wear women’s clothes and prance around his opening in high heels, but he can’t muster the courage to do it.
Ultimately, the film is infuriating, and unfortunately disposable, because the filmmakers never seem to be able to do anything more than focus on this arc in the real character’s life. Once their story arc is basically over, even though there is so much more to do and say with this film, we are forced to let go. It’s vaguely like exploitation in that you only get this salacious intro to a man’s life, and you’re forced to wonder: so where is he now? Ok, well, thanks for throwing up the website marwencol.com at the end there for us, Jeff, I guess we are not supposed to actually care immediately after the film ends where this guy is now, and what came of all the spotlight that the interested parties hit him with?
Mark’s work is wonderfully creative and painstakingly meticulous and that’s all well and good, but does no one care about the man behind the Marwencol?