They Can't Take Our Town: Marwencol (2010)

When a documentary filmmaker decides to do a character study it often proves to be an awful failure or a huge success. Fortunately for Jeff Malmberg, his study of mentally paralyzed Mark Hogencamp and his handmade fantasy world of Marwencol proves not only successful, but also transcendental at times.  It manages to display both the abyss of humanity and its moments of triumph while remaining accessible, entertaining and thought provoking throughout.  Furthermore, unlike a variety of documentaries of this nature, it keeps up an artistic value that allows for breathtaking cinematography, heartbreaking disconnect and a sobering acceptance of the tragedy that exists right in front of the human eye.

Marwencol's narrative is somewhat complicated, not unlike the stories created by Mark to explain his dioramas.  We are told from the onset that Mark's amnesia is directly tied to a beating he received after leaving a bar a few years earlier.  It is implied that Mark provoked said beating in a drunken stupor, but fails to recall precisely what he said or did.  As a form of therapy, Mark now builds and adds to a fictional model town he refers to as Marwencol, which is a combination of his name and two other real females he knows.  His town, is not a fictional escape per se, but instead a simulacrum of his own life, replacing the muggers with SS officers, and his ideal female with a time-traveling witch.  It is quickly apparent, as his attorney notes, that Mark uses the world to rationalize and accept the violent acts he previously received.  More so, it is made slowly apparent that Mark also cross-dresses, displaying a particular fascination with women's shoes.  As a replaying of the police interviews shows, Mark was attacked not because of a drunken argument, but because he admitted in public to cross-dressing.  He was a victim of a hate crime that left him severely maimed.  Thus Marwencol serves as Mark's world of comfort, but also as a form of artistic expression that is so fascinating and sincere that it lands him a show in Greenwich Village, New York. 

His trip to the city, though anxiety ridden, allows mark to come face to face with his past and affords him a chance to cross dress without criticism a moment he shows great pride in on screen.  In a touching set of closing shots, Mark creates a Marwencol within Marwencol, which allows viewers to assume that despite his loss of memory, Mark has come to terms with his life and accepts his act of therapy as an integral portion of his daily life.

The film is deeply philosophical and approaches issues of memory loss in a honest and direct manner.  It reminds those watching that memory loss is often tragic, yet in many cases, the loss of everything also allows a person to start over and right wrongs of the past.  Furthermore, it questions how much of a divide truly exists between the world of fantasy and reality.  As Mark's friends and co-workers show it is easy to sustain normalcy between both if everyone involved is willing to play along.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it touches upon the question of what legitimizes artistic expression.  As a friend of Mark's notes, his work is not ironic, like others who use dolls for art; it is very intimate and true to his feelings.  The photographs taken by Mark show this, as his replicas are often extremely detailed from incorporating his own personal photographs or adding makeup and downcast faces to display emotion.  It is art for the sake of release, not for the sake of commentary.  Mark and those around him understand that for him it is much more than making a name for himself, it is a means of emotional survival.

I am not extremely versed in documentaries, but this is one of the best I have seen to date.  I would encourage looking into not only the film, but the work of Mark Hogencamp as well, it is all available at this link.

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