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Marwencol: A hit at TIFF Bell Lightbox

November 15, 2010

By John C.


In 2000, Mark Hogencamp was mercilessly beaten up outside of a bar.  In a coma for 9 days, 31 more in hospital, he was left with an acquired brain injury and had to relearn the day-to-day skills many of us take for granted.  Now he lives his life through Marwencol – a Belgian village that he has created in his backyard, as the home to a collection of dolls and action figures that he uses to recreate WWII-era scenes.


Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol – which started a successful run at TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 4th – tells the story with patience, sympathy and obvious admiration for the world Hogencamp has created.  The fitting musical score is a mix of war-time songs and jazz music.  Though small in budget, I expect some awards recognition will be in place for this unique little film.


Before the attack, Hogencamp was an alcoholic, but now has no desire to drink.  He was married, but divorced, working at a local diner five days a week.  The film grows curiously more bizarre in its last act, as we find out unsettling details about the central subject and what led to the initial attack.


Living his life vicariously through his make-believe village, he has dolls devoted to everyone in his real town of Kingston, New York, living out obsessions and fantasies through this secondary world.  If someone upsets him in real life, then they vanish forever from Marwencol.  Every story he creates is meticulously photographed, right down to the gory details of his imagined battles.


Mark’s work was discovered by a local photographer, and he was approached to have his photos displayed at an art gallery in the city.  But the choice for him to have his work displayed was not an easy one, as he was terrified that the world he created would be taken away from him.  “I created Marwencol for me, as my therapy” he says.  The journey out of his backyard is followed by Malmberg with the same type of fascination we may give a reclusive celebrity.


There are disturbing undertones to the story, as the film depicts the fine line between genius and madness.  Though an unsettling portrait of a tortured artist, the film is fascinating – particularly from a psychological standpoint, right through to the shocking final scene.  Although it emotionally left me a little cold, for pure documentary filmmaking that tells a dark story filled with twists, I recommend visiting Marwencol.


The beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox serves as the perfect venue for unique visions of artistic expression, with many titles finally getting the attention they deserve, if only for a few weeks.  Marwencol is now in its second week of release.

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