“My memories that I do get,” says Mark Hogancamp, “They come back in stills, just a single shot, but no context.” They remind him, he adds as you look at wedding photos, “Oh, yeah, I was married, to a good-looking girl too.” Inspired by such images, Mark says he started “asking questions, because I didn’t’ know who I was.”
These questions form something of a starting point for Marwencol. Jeff Malmberg’s extraordinary documentary—which initiates the 14th season of Stranger Than Fiction on 28 September and opens 8 October at the IFC Center in New York—traces Mark’s journey, as he recalls it. The victim of a horrific attack on 8 April 2008, he woke nine days later in a hospital with his face smashed beyond recognition. Five men, he learned later, had beaten him almost to death outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York. Mark’s recovery included learning basic functions all over again. “To see, at 38, your own so learning to walk again,” says his mother, Edda, “It’s heartbreaking.”
As Mark regains his abilities as well to eat and speak, he recalls, he devised his own “therapies.” That is, he built a miniature Belgian village called Marwencol, scaled to accommodate a bar he called Hogancamp’s Dream and 27 Barbies, the first to greet his alter ego when he arrived, following a “crash landing.” Mark describes the reaction the his doll-self, a U.S. soldier during World War II: “I was thinking, “What a lucky guy I am.”
As the documentary reveals, Marwencol is constructed of scrap wood and paint, and populated by an increasing number of dolls, some modeled after historical figures (General Patton gives Mark one of his guns) and others versions of people in Kingston, from Edda to his friends Colleen and Lisa (who, as Mediterranean Lisa, falls in love with the Steve McQueen doll) to Emmanuel Nneji, the Ulster County DA who prosecuted Mark’s attackers. As he built the town and created people to live in it, Mark imagined and documented, in precisely posed photographs, elaborate life stories. To draw business to Hogancamp’s Dream, Mark’s alter ego hires women to stage catfights—“for entertainment purposes only,” he underlines—and models himself on Sam Malone in Cheers, a recovering alcoholic who drinks only coffee. “Does anybody in the bar ever offer your figure a drink?” asks his interviewer from off-screen. “Oh yeah,” Mark says, “I just tell ‘em I don’t drink.”
Mark has learned that before the attack, he was a terrible drunk, antagonistic and angry. Now, he wants the bar in Marwencol to be a place where everyone can come together to drink and smoke cigarettes, the Americans, the Germans, the French: “Everybody got along,” he says, “Nobody was against one another, no matter what clothing they wore.” Attentive to details in his world, Mark drags jeeps along pavement to make sure the tires are suitably worn, paints dolls’ faces and meticulously sets up situations to photograph—catfights and romances, snowy street scenes, Mark’s torture by the SS and subsequent rescue by “the women of Marwencol.” In these episodes, Mark finds himself. “This place,” he says, “Just looking at it soothes me.”
Mark’s connections to the figures of Marwencol extend beyond the town’s borders, as he brings his favorites to his bedside each night, arranging them in a miniature bed on his nightstand. “I make sure they’re all tucked in,” he says, “Because if they’re happy, I sleep better. They’re always the last things I see before I go to bed.” The dolls wear makeup and dresses, the men are rugged, embodiments of an ideal, traditional order. As he rarely encounters “real women” who “wear real makeup and wear something other than sneakers and jeans and boots,” he maintains careful control of the habits, desires, and storylines of his world’s inhabitants.
That’s not to say the place doesn’t evolve, or that events don’t have consequences (a neighbor laments that she was “killed off” in Marwencol, an event precipitating a showdown between Mark and the cruel SS officers who murder her in a church). “If Mark is angry, he definitely takes it out in his town,” observes his best friend Bert. “The SS takes the brunt of a lot of it.” Punishing these perpetrators, Mark may or may not find relief regarding his own attack. In making memories in the form of photos, he mirrors the processes of the real world, where memories emerge from experience, reframed to suit subjective and selective needs, shaping and shaped by the selves we become in part out of initial experiences, and in part out of those memories.
The film is another form of remembering. As the film recounts, professional photographer David Naugle happened to spot Mark one day as he was dragging a jeep; when he learned of Marwencol, Naugle put Mark in touch with Esopus magazine editor Tod Lippy, who arranged for a gallery show in Soho. With this, Mark faced another series of decisions concerning his world and the memories he was fashioning in photos of it. What was he willing to share, and how would the public exposure affect his relationship to it. “It’s like, this is the one last thing that I don’t want taken from me,” he says.
As the documentary shows the show, it suggests that Mark’s capacity to share his experience through photos of Marwencol, through such precisely ordered and reordered forms, helps him to rediscover himself. Marwencol the movie is another opportunity for rediscovery, for Mark certainly, but also for the rest of us. As Mark describes it, he sorts through a past and builds a present on the “memories I do get,” memories he absorbs and transforms. This process, of self-imagining and storytelling, reflects the intricate, ever shifting ways that we all understand ourselves, the worlds inside and around us.