Several years ago, 38 year-old Mark Hogencamp was attacked and beaten within an inch of his life by five men outside a bar. After nine days unconscious and thirty-one more in the hospital, Mark returned home with severe brain damage. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, write, eat, and take care of himself, all of which he did, in time. But also lost in the attack was his memory — for him, nothing before waking up in the hospital had ever happened. All friends and family were strangers. Everything was new. And none of that would ever come back.
This documentary tells the amazing story of Mark’s recovery. After being cut off prematurely from medical and psychological care due to Medicaid restrictions (he had no health insurance — p.s. ARGH!), Mark decided to continue his own therapy by creating an elaborate WWII village in his front yard, a village he named Marwencol (after Mark, Wendy, and Colleen — himself and two friends). Using GI Joe- and Barbie-type dolls, he began to dream up and then stage extremely complex stories. He would set each scene, paying attention to the most minute of details (the bend of a wrist, the setting of a bar counter, etc.), and after each scene was carefully staged, he’d take a photograph. At the end of the day, he’d have dozens of photos which, when put together, told the complete tale — kind of like a stop-action film with a lot more stops. This process helped not only with his dexterity problems, especially in his hands, but also served as a very powerful form of emotional healing as well.
Many of the characters in Marwencol represent real people from Mark’s life, in part as a way to reconnect with those he’d lost all memory of. He’s in there himself (he’s the star, in fact), and so are his family members and friends. Together, they have dramatic, exciting adventures, many of which involve violence and warfare (a way Mark vents the anger and frustration that emerge as a result of his painfully debilitating PTSD), but a lot of them also involve friendship and love, as well as the loneliness and isolation Mark feels in his new life. It’s those latter stories that made Marwencol one of the most thoroughly affecting movies I’ve seen so far at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).
Hogencamp is a disabled man with a brilliantly artistic mind, always a challenging combination. But one of the things I found fascinating about this film was thinking about the differences in his personality before and after the attack (“personality” might be the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one). Before the attack, Hogencamp says, he was an avid artist (drawings, mostly, and they were incredible), a terrible alcoholic, and a transvestite. But after the attack wiped out his memory, only two of those three characteristics remained — he woke up in the hospital with no craving or desire for alcohol whatsoever, but returned home clearly still an extremely talented artist (though because of the brain damage, his hands are no longer steady enough to draw) and still a transvestite as well. Two things innate, one the product of circumstances or experiences he no longer had? Who knows? But as someone fascinated by the way the human brain works, I found this to be a particularly intriguing element of the story.
Blah blah science blah who cares, though. What made this film a delight was Hogencamp himself. His stories are unbelievably entertaining, his art mind-blowing. And the man himself is an absolute inspiration, not just because of what he’s overcome, but because of his courage, confidence, and self-respect. Hogencamp refuses to hide any part of himself; he’s completely open, loving, and honest. He is, in short, the purest form of beauty there is — he is truth. You can see it in his eyes when he talks, and you can see it in his art too — so complex and yet so thoroughly unfettered somehow, too.
Marwencol is, without a doubt, a film that will stay with me for a very long time. Lucky for the rest of you, the director reported at the screening that it will be opening in theaters nationwide in October, as well as air on PBS next spring. In the meantime, you can visit Mark’s web site, where you’ll see some of his work (stories and photos), and there you can buy his book, part of the proceeds of which will go to help Mark with both medical expenses and with the costs of upgrading and maintaining the amazing, beautiful world of Marwencol.
Don’t miss this film. Just don’t do it. You need to see it. It’s that incredible. It really is. Listen to me. Just listen this time. Listen up.
[Update 9/15/2010: The Marwencol trailer is now up on YouTube, and the film should be opening nationwide in theaters on OCTOBER 8, 2010. Don't miss it!]
Cast: Mark Hogencamp, directed by Jeff Malmberg