★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hogancamp left a bar in Kingston, NY after a night of drinking and five teenagers followed him to the parking lot. The confrontation left Mark beat up and bloodied. While the doctors were able to rebuild his face, spending forty days in the hospital and nine days being in a coma, the resulting brain damage was irreversible. Mark had no memory, so he had to spend time relearning certain abilities like how to write simple sentences and being reacquainted with his loved ones. In order to cope, Mark built a one-sixth scale World War II town that he named Marwencol, populated by various dolls, from G.I. Joe action figures to Barbie dolls, which reflects his alter-ego and those around him.
Directed by Jeff Malmberg, the documentary is an amazing story of new beginnings. Although what happened to Hogancamp was a tragedy, the picture does just enough to garner our sympathy yet we do not feel sorry for the subject. In some ways, the film argues that the brain damage has opened new avenues for Mark.
For example, he was a former alcoholic and everybody knew how he was like when he was drunk. During the interviews, one can feel that his friends and neighbors might be holding back just enough information from us in order to remain respectful to the person they know. If they did, it is understandable. They explain just enough to give us a general idea about how Mark was like before.
After the surgery, Mark was like a new man. He was even able to hold down a job in a bar. Alcohol in colorful bottles stared at his every move and were readily available for his enjoyment yet his addiction no longer tormented him. In fact, he said he felt nothing toward the spirits.
The fictional town is impressive in its exacting detail. It is so intricate that even a .45 gun a doll holds has a magazine one can remove. The film parallels Mark’s story with a strand involving the dolls and the initial harmony among the British, German, and American soldiers. Women also play a key role in the town. Mark loved women; the riskiest angle that the film takes on is his infatuation with a former neighbor who happened to be married. It brings up questions about the line between being sensitive to Mark’s situation versus her responsibility to herself and her family.
Marwencol and its residents provide a lot of insight in terms of how Mark processes information. It gives him a sense of control as well as an outlet for his negative thoughts and feelings. When the subject of the tragic night is broached, he says he wishes to hurt those who took away his memories. Maybe he might even have the urge to kill them if he saw them in the street. This claim does not generate alarm but sympathy.
Perhaps the most intense segment involves Mark’s alter-ego being kidnapped and harassed by five Nazis, symbols of hatred toward people who do not quite fit the elusive norm. What makes Mark and his alter-ego stand out enough to garner such hatred? Meanwhile, bloody dolls with missing limbs and craters in their skulls pervade the screen. It is a reminder that Mark is and will likely to always be on the road to recovery.