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Marwencol (2010) ****

January 18, 2011


produced by: Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, Chris Shellen & Kevin W. Walsh

directed by: Jeff Malmberg



U.S. release date: October 8, 2010 (limited) & January 14, 2011 (limited run at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Theater) 


Marwencol is the name of a whimsical town that is stuck in time, World War II era to be specific. It’s a place you can go to hang out with soldiers and tool around in a jeep or down a few brews, be they British, German or American, they all get along in Marwencol. Every dame is a doll in Marwencol, in fact, so are the guys. Where is Marwencol? It’s in the backyard of Mark Hogancamp in Kingston, New York. He created this 1/6th scale fictional town populated by a random assortment of twelve-inch G.I. Joe type soldiers and Barbies, and breathed life into them, background story and all. Why did he do this? To get his life back.    

Back in April 2000, Hogancamp was beaten to near death outside of a local bar by a group of teenagers. They carelessly left the 38 year-old man forever changed, his face unrecognizable, resulting in a mind-wiping brain injury and a loss of motor skills. He was in a hospital for forty-five days, nine of them was spent in a coma. When he awoke and got out, he had to learn basic motor functions like writing, drawing, and walking, all over again. Insurance and medical care only brought Hogancamp so far though and soon he realized he would have to provide his own rehabilitation.

He could have turned inward; giving in to depression, addiction, or sheer hopelessness. Instead, this once illustrator channelled what was left of his life into a hobby both curious and personal. hobby: Creating this three-dimensional, small-scale Belgian town opened the floodgates of Hogancamp’s imagination. What started as deliberate catharsis turned into an immersive world in which he would find healing (both physical and emotional), while creating an idyllic community.

In his directorial debut, Jeff Malmberg doesn’t shoot for sappy inspiration or any contrived tugging of the heartstrings. He captures Hogancamp on DVCam video and Super-8 film, as he photographs his dolls (or actors) carry on with their lives. Malmberg showcases Hogancamp’s photos of positioned scenes throughout the movie, but especially the opening and the ending. Throughout the film, we watch as Hogancamp carefully adjusts a doll hand here and a detailed handgun there. He’s well aware how such activity is honing his hand coordination and dexterity, but to him that’s a side benefit. Spending time with the characters he’s created is far more beneficial.

Malmberg’s approach to simply follow along and let Hogancamp describe his attack, his recover and the friends and family who helped him, is a wise move. It’s much more rewarding than an interview approach, here we are invited to Hogancamp’s world and we see how he is more confidant in his interaction with the people of Marwencol than he is those flesh and blood people around him. And that’s okay, because we’re shown a variety of extremely generous people who’ve given Hogancamp their time and energy as well as needed opportunities, assisting as he struggles to claim a new life.


The film is at its best when we are down on our bellys, peering into Hogancamp’s little world as the dolls tell his story. He names them all with many of them looking or representing those close to him. In fact, many of the real people these dolls are named after are introduced by Malmberg filming them holding up the doll version of themselves that Hogancamp has created. I found it hilarious that he got a kick out of the doll he found that to represent his mom is actually Pussy Galore from a “Goldfinger” line of dolls. To those close to him, it is an honor to be as a character in Marwencol.  

Most of the stories in the town though revolve around a rugged war hero that Hogancamp uses as his avatar. He is tough and romantic yet he’s also emotionally scarred and prefers coffee to alcohol and stilettos to combat boots….just like in real life. This isn’t play time for Hogancamp this is serious business. He dresses his dolls with meticulous care and the places the inhabit are no less detailed. There’s the crowded bar named “Hogancamp’s Ruined Stocking Catfight Club” that looks at once seedy and inviting and in the back there’s plenty of room for staged catfights for all the chronically smiling broads. As Hogancamp takes well-positioned snapshots, Malmberg is right there, not wanting to miss the sometimes gory, sometimes touching adventures of these alter-egos.

After all that Hogancamp has gone through, it’s wonderful to see him so enraptured by his escapism. The fact that he is the one that created such art and therapy for himself is a testament to his determination and imagination. He has a source to tap into in order to dodge reality like financial challenges, medical bills, and a one day a week working in a restaurant. In Marwencol, he can find love and get married, fly a fighter plane, or wear silk stockings, if he so chooses.  

Bring introduced to Hogancamp is a stark reminder how we never really know much about the random people will meet. Regardless of how someone behaves, they have a story to tell, just like you. From the outside, Hogancamp seems like he’s just fine, but in reality everyday is a gift as well as a challenge. This chain-smoking, socially awkward, disabled man is inspiring in how he lives through these dolls. Beyond the various scenes he plays out with his creation, what he really is doing is confronting what has happened to him.

Near the end of the film, we take a trip with Hogancamp to Greenwich Village for a gallery showing of all his photographs. In his anxiety, he wrestles with what to wear (heels?) and how to talk to people and winds up just taking picture of woman’s shoes, calling himself an elephant that is thrilled to just follow the peanuts.  Several quirky little things add up to make us see the beauty in this born-again man who has blossomed into an artist after half his life was erased. “Marwencol”  will be hard to find due to its limited circulation but when this unforgettable film hits DVD & Bluray in April, you will do well to check it out.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Troy Nanninga permalink
    April 25, 2011 11:22 pm

    very interesting film david, I loved how the medium of art served as significant therapy for him…. what a beautiful expression of his life and his pain and his healing… thanks for the recommendation


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