There is something familiar and eerie, realistic and fantastical in the photography of Mark Hogancamp. Small, 1/6-scale models set in the elaborate fictional WWII-era Belgian town of Marwencol are posed and depicted as lives filled with fierce fighting, intense romance and ongoing intrigues. Opening Friday in Los Angeles, the documentary "Marwencol" is a stirring, evocative portrait of the struggles faced by Hogancamp in achieving his distinctive artistic visions.
In the spring of 2000, Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five men outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y., putting him in a coma for nine days and largely wiping out his memory. Before the assault Hogancamp had been an amateur illustrator; trying to regain his coordination he eventually picked up a still camera instead. Hogancamp's sense of scale, his eye for detail and his intuitive grasp of narrative make each image an action-packed film still from the battles that play out inside of him. "Marwencol" sensitively portrays Hogancamp's struggle to reenter the world, regain equilibrium in his life and conquer his crisis of self-identity, not the least of which is whether he even considers himself an artist.
"I wanted Mark to be the art and I wanted to be the frame," is how director Jeff Malmberg, who spent four years working on the film, recently described his approach to depicting Hogancamp.
The film has become one of the most celebrated documentary debuts of the year. It won the grand jury prize following its world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival and has since picked up numerous other festival awards, from the nerd-haven Comic-Con to the prestigious Hot Docs. Malmberg has been named recipient of the emerging documentary filmmaker award from the International Documentary Assn., and "Marwencol" just received four nominations from the doc-specific Cinema Eye Honors.
(One prize the film definitely will not be receiving, however, is an Academy Award. The team behind "Marwencol" decided the qualifying process for documentaries is too expensive and exclusionary, and so opted not to pursue a nomination.)
Malmberg's portrayal of Hogancamp is a portrait of self-discovery in the most literal sense. In recovering from his traumatic brain injury, Hogancamp is seen relearning not only who he was but also who he is and still could be.
"It's like I'm lost," agreed Hogancamp, 48, during a phone call from his home, where he was sitting at his coffee table dressing a new trio of female characters. "And I have that gumption to do something, to tell what's inside of me."
The ongoing narrative of the town of "Marwencol" — where the main character, Capt. Hogancamp, is constantly besieged by a marauding group of Nazis — is easy to read as an extension of Hogancamp's inner life. He adds characters based on people he meets or movie characters he likes. Malmberg and his wife, Chris Shellen, a producer on the documentary, are both now in the story; the three new female characters are based on women Hogancamp recently met while in New York for screenings of the movie.
"To me they're not dolls, they're not toys, they're actual living, breathing actors and actresses," Hogancamp said of the characters he creates. Although he never writes down the stories that emerge from the town of Marwencol, he can recite all the ongoing escapades like a familiar potboiler playing on TV or a serialized adventure story.
"That's the way I first saw it when I started Marwencol, that I'm not an artist, I'm a little 1/6-scale film director. I'm making a movie in my head."
Malmberg, a 38-year-old graduate of USC's film school who works as a film editor in Los Angeles, first learned of Hogancamp from an article in the arts magazine Esopus. Thinking he might make a short film, Malmberg arranged to visit Hogancamp and see the town. Malmberg ended up going to visit Hogancamp 15 times, staying anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The project grew and grew as, in addition to spending time with Hogancamp, Malmberg began to speak with his family and people who knew him, working to gain perspective on Hogancamp's identity from before and after his attack.
"We got to travel down that road together," said Malmberg. "Here's somebody who didn't know the details of his first life, didn't know the details of the attack. So I was curious going in, and he was curious too because he couldn't remember.
"I think the smartest thing I did was just feeling free enough to get a little bit lost," he added. "You're really trying to find your way into what all this is telling you and how you're supposed to synthesize this into a movie. As an editor I always felt comfortable that if I could just get through the directorial process I'd figure it out."
The film manages to be at once straightforward with Hogancamp's story and enigmatic with many of its details, as it builds to Hogancamp's first major art show as its narrative spine. The way Malmberg treats certain parts of Hogancamp's life — the revelation of key personal information, his ongoing physical and emotional issues and the lingering mystery of the attack itself — is not to create a series of cheap-shot "spoilers" but rather to upend any preconceptions that audiences might have about Hogancamp and his work.
As Malmberg explained, the film's structure and careful accumulation of information was "a function of trying to present it back to the viewer in the same way I experienced it. So they would have the opportunity to have their expectations constantly overturned until you realize here's somebody you might have dismissed initially as somebody playing with dolls, and he's really way stronger than you might be.
"I think we put people in boxes too easily, and once we let them step out of it there is something much more beautiful there and engenders in the audience a deeper sense of respect and understanding."