Jeff Malmberg's widely acclaimed documentary about Mark Hogancamp — an assault victim who channels his recovery through an unusual creative outlet — is a refreshing reminder that an interesting and complex personality can be just as or more compelling a subject than the flashy social issues that obsess so many filmmakers working in this genre.
Severely beaten during one of his regular drinking binges, Hogancamp underwent extreme physical therapy to regain his abilities to walk, talk, and write — but, still lacking agility and steadiness in his hands, he was unable to draw, which was his primary form of expressing difficult emotions prior to his injury. As an alternative, Hogancamp delved into the world of dolls and model structures, creating a fantasy world through which he was able to explore, both inadvertently and directly, the effects of his trauma.
Malmberg takes an unobtrusive approach to this human interest story, quietly observing Hogancamp's richly imaginative and minutely detailed landscape, as he uses his dolls as surrogates for himself and the people in his life, including his attackers. Marwencol is fascinating psychology. On a very basic level, it provides evidence of the effectiveness of art as therapy, at least for someone already artistically inclined, as Hogancamp was. His particular mode of expression is so transparently cathartic, at times, that the movie also works as a kind of meta-drama, as Hogancamp puts his dolls through scenarios that might alternate between b-grade war thriller pulp and unavoidably self-reflective meditations on his personal experiences.
There's a kind of twist late in Marwencol that adds some context to Hogancamp's feelings of social impotence, which existed even prior to his injury and fueled the dysfunctional alcoholism that plagued that chapter of his life. Malmberg, with his hands-off style, doesn't probe into Hogancamp's world(s), but merely allows his introverted subject to reveal himself as he sees fit, making his movie effective as a unique slice-of-life and a peek into the psyche of a troubled person working things out the best they can.
Marwencol was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Nick Dallas. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #349 / 2181 (84%), putting it at #5 out of the 95 documentaries on his Flickchart. Marwencol ranked on my overall chart at #1351 (66%), where it's my 45th favorite out of 131 documentaries.