About two years ago, I found a documentary on Netflix that affected me in a way that no other film has since. The film is entitled Marwencol, and it drew out an enormous spectrum of emotions in me right away.
The plot is essentially this: an artist (Mark Hogancamp) overcoming a traumatic brain injury finds solace and healing by creating a model world, painting figurines, and creating myth-like stories that occur in the miniature world of Marwencol. The film cannot have more levels if it were fiction rather than reality. To begin, he literally lost all his memories, so painting people he knew and making them exist in his world is a way of putting them back in his life and in the forefront of his mind. Along with so much of his life, he lost his ability to draw and paint, but his creative will propelled him to create another world.
A way to pass the time when he was healing, his hobby became an addiction. He bought models nearly daily, painting them and giving them backstories. Creating a model world became his own personal therapy. But director Jeff Malmberg, saw his model world as something else. He saw art.
The story of Mark Hogancamp is amazing, awe-inspiring, and beautiful, and I highly recommend you see the documentary. Lately, what I’ve been thinking about (a movie like this sticks in your brain for years) is not about this incredible artist but actually about the director.
In a world where a man gets beaten until he’s lost his identity, it’s hard to have faith in humankind. The film’s director conveys the pain and trauma Hogancamp experiences yet never pushes him to a place where he is uncomfortable. He doesn’t exploit the violence of the act that caused Hogancamp’s life to change or make it the focal point of the film. Maimberg could have very easily made a successful, sensationalist film.
The director also didn’t make the movie about himself, which a lot of documentarians are guilty of doing. He technically “discovered” Hogancamp, something anyone should be proud of, but it’s just a connected dot in the story. Malmberg is the narrator, and a character within the movie, in a way I think Nick Carraway is in The Great Gatsby. Both men interact with and affect the storyline, but they also tell the story, and it feels as if they’re sitting next to you, ushering the narrative. There are a lot of documentarians who can’t seem to get out of the camera view–Werner Herzog, for example, is notorious for this kind of narcissistic behavior.
What I admire most about the filmmaker is that he is as earnest about Hogancamp’s world as is Hogancamp. This film isn’t about a middle-aged, brain damaged man who still plays with dolls–it’s about an artist reconstructing his world, his sense of self, and his whole life. Malmberg was just along for the ride, and fortunately for viewers, his camera was, too.