SXSW Film: Documentary Prize Winner Marwencol

In 2000, Mark Hogancamp was beaten into a coma by five men outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. Unable to continue

Welcome  to Marwencol

Book about Marwencol produced by the filmmakers

paying for medical help, Hogancamp began to create a new world in his backyard as a form of physical and emotional therapy during his recovery (which is ongoing). The resulting 1/6th scale Belgian village, named Marwencol, is a fantasy oasis set in the middle of World War II peopled with lifelike dolls, many based on real people in Hogancamp’s life. And this town has, in turn, become the subject of a new documentary of the same name.


The story of Marwencol begins when Hogancamp’s alter ego crash-lands in a European field and is drawn into an almost-empty village by a group of beautiful women. He makes this place his home, beginning a narrative that continues and grows day by day as new dolls and storylines are introduced. This "second" world has rescued Hogancamp, helping him to deal with an attack that still haunts him and keeps him from fully functioning outside the village.


Mark Hogancamp at his White

Columns art show in New York City.

And then there are the photographs. Moving and beautifully realized, Hogancamp has taken thousands of photographs of Marwencol, chronicling its stories, and capturing them with a stunning sincerity. Drawing on our popular ideas of everything from war nostalgia to pulp exploitation cinema (there’s a river scene reminiscent of the original Inglorious Bastards movie), the “discovery” of the photographs have led to an appreciation in the art world of Hogancamp’s work.

Three weeks ago, when director James Benning was in San Francisco, he spoke briefly about his love for folk artists such as Vivian Girls creator Henry Darger. At the same time he pointed out that we’re too apt to label this work as primitive; the so-called folk art that really rises to the top needs no context, it’s successful in and of itself. While Hogancamp’s story is deeply moving, and in the documentary he comes across as intelligent and endearing, it’s the work itself that elevates the story. Director Jeff Malmberg features Hogancamp's photographs heavily, which is a good choice, especially considering Hogancamp remains reluctant to leave his home, so this is a rare chance to see his images of the town writ large.

Jeff Malmberg
Jeff Malmberg, Director
Malmberg treats the story behind the photos with a deft touch, guiding the audience through unfolding revelations about Hogancamp’s life, while showcasing the photographs in a way that allows their artistry to glow. The story also evokes the vivid connection adults lose between themselves and the world of make-believe, the complex imaginative narratives that once lived inside us, and the real connection we once felt with dolls and other inanimate objects.

Marwencol is the well-deserved winner of the SXSW Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature (I predict there will be a screening in San Francisco and other cities soon). Director Malmberg and co-producer Chris Shellen were in attendance in Austin, and were selling a small book of Mark E. Hogancamp’s photographs. This isn't currently available for sale online, but check back at the Marwencol website in the coming weeks.


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