Mark Hogancamp’s entire memory was wiped out at the age of 38 when five young men beat him to a pulp outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, N.Y. He spent nine days in a coma and suffered permanent brain damage. That was 10 years ago. He had to relearn how to walk, and how to read and write. He couldn’t afford long-term professional treatment. So to improve his motor skills and cope with his trauma, he devised a bizarre homemade therapy—imagining himself as an American fighter pilot who is shot down over Belgium in the Second World War, saved from Nazis by Barbie doll babes, and ends up running a nightclub called the Ruined Stocking.
Hogancamp realized his fantasy by building an intricate scale model of the fictitious Belgian town of Marwencol in his backyard. Its inhabitants are dolls, outfitted in period costumes, and arranged in meticulous tableaux. He creates scenarios of romance, kidnapping, torture, combat and execution—which he photographs to create a serial narrative that’s like something out of Inglourious Basterds. But it’s not just pulp fiction. When Hogancamp’s alter ego is tortured by five SS officers, it’s a symbolic re-enactment of the brutal assault that robbed him of his memory.
This bizarre world has been captured in Marwencol, an astonishing documentary shot by American filmmaker Jeff Malmberg over a four-year period. The film leaves no doubt that Hogancamp is a genuine artist. But that’s not how he sees himself. He talks about his fantasy world as if it’s as real as the one he lives in, if not more so. And his goal is therapy, not art. When his work is discovered, and shown in a gallery, he finds it a scary, painful experience. Which begs the question: what happens to therapy when it turns into art, and to art when it turns into therapy?
The issue is raised by a number of new films that, like Marwencol, are featured at Toronto’s Hot Docs (April 29-May 9), North America’s leading documentary festival. In Leave Them Laughing, by Oscar-winning director John Zaritsky, a Canadian performer dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Carla Zilbersmith, turns her plight into fodder for a brave and outrageous comedy act. Music takes on therapeutic overtones in John Walker’s A Drummers Dream, a sublime doc about a summer camp where a dream team of percussionists conduct inspirational workshops. And Complaints Choir explores a nutty worldwide phenomenon of glee clubs that set mundane gripes to choral music—with lyrics like “my toast is cold” and “my dreams are boring.”
In Lucy Walker’s Sundance hit Waste Land, renowned Brooklyn-based artist Vik Munez seeks redemption in garbarge. Returning to his Brazilian homeland, he creates photo installations of “pickers”—self-appointed workers who salvage recyclable material from a vast dump outside Rio de Janeiro. Then he enlists them to embellish their portraits with debris. The therapy is a two-way street—Muniz gets to “give back” to the impoverished community of his childhood, and the pickers are dignified in portraits that will hang in a fancy gallery. But their sense of empowerment turns out to be more inspiring than the art itself, which is blandly beatific.
What’s exceptional about Marwencol is that the artist isn’t looking for attention. Although he gets discovered, his make-believe world is a private one, and free of irony. Like a child at play, Hogancamp is completely immersed in it. Each day he pulls a toy jeep two miles down the road to put some wear on its tires. His alter-ego doll has a miniature briefcase containing a thumbnail certificate that proves he legally owns the Ruined Stocking nightclub, where he stages cat fights “for entertainment purposes only.”
Hogancamp’s obsession is so extreme it verges on delusional, but he seems to find a calming sanity in it. Many of the dolls are autobiographical.
The bartender, fashioned from a Goldfinger Pussy Galore doll, is based on his mother. His own character drinks only coffee, reflecting the fact that Hogancamp is now sober—he was a raging alcoholic before the assault. In Marwencol, his life has really picked up. Because the SS killed off all the men in town, he can choose from 27 Barbie Belgians. He falls for a blond who’s based on a married ex-neighbour, right down to her hairstyle. “Boy, what a lucky man I am,” he sighs, slipping a tiny pair of Manolo Blahnik slingbacks onto her feet. Hogancamp has not had sex in eight years, and pines for an experience he can’t remember. But, he says, “at least my alter ego can have a girlfriend.”