Thursday, January 13, 2011

Doll Photographer

Like all accomplished war photographers, Mark Hogancamp puts himself at risk. He shoots fugitive moments of violence, anguish, and bravery. But Hogancamp’s work differs from others’ in one key respect: The combat zones he enters don’t entirely exist in the real world. It’s the battlefield of his emotions that he’s trying to capture on film.

“Marwencol’’ is a documentary about this peculiar man and the fictitious, painstakingly-detailed, 1/6-scale town he built in his yard. Set in Belgium during World War II and populated with dozens of buildings, military vehicles, and more than 100 foot-high, poseable action figures, Hogancamp’s simulacrum is called Marwencol.

“Everything’s real,’’ Hogancamp gushes at one point in the film, demonstrating how a tiny pistol in one soldier’s hands has a working hammer and replaceable clip. “That all adds to my ferocity of getting into the story. I know what’s inside every satchel,’’ he says. Those contents include a stamp-size deed proving that Captain “Hogie’’ Hogancamp, the real man’s 12-inch alter ego, owns the doll-house-size, make-believe bar in this make-believe realm.
The fine line separating real from imagined is the focus of this provocative documentary, winner of the Jury Award for best documentary at the SXSW Film Festival. “Marwencol’’ opens at Kendall Square Cinema on Friday.

“I was immediately taken by the world and wanted to know more,’’ says director/producer/editor Jeff Malmberg in a recent phone interview. Malmberg first saw Hogancamp’s photos in an art magazine. “At first glance, Mark could easily be judged as hermetic and creepy,’’ the filmmaker adds. “He’s a grown man who spends his days playing with dolls.’’

But Hogancamp’s sphere, and his story, is no child’s play.
Marwencol — the name combines Mark with two significant women in his life, Wendy and Colleen — is overrun with Allied and Nazi soldiers. As the story comes alive in Hogancamp’s head, the dolls torture each other, cat-fight, and fall in love. Their brutal and sometimes beautiful shrunken-down world ultimately becomes a realm for loss and recovery.
What led to Hogancamp retreating into his fantasy world is barbaric. Ten years ago, when Hogancamp was 38, he was beaten by five men outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, N.Y. — badly enough to cause coma and brain damage (the motive for the beating is revealed in the film). Returning to “real life’’ proved difficult. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was understandably suspicious of the world. Worse, he couldn’t remember who he was before the attack.

“When the teenagers kicked my head to pieces,’’ Hogancamp says in the film, “they wiped away everything.’’ What was I like, he asks; was I mean? He has to start over.
To recover his motor skills and, hopefully, overcome his emotional trauma, Hogancamp creates what he calls “my therapy.’’ Having been a talented artist before his brain injuries, he buys dozens of historically accurate toy soldiers and civilians and, with a god-like hand, inserts each one into WWII Belgium. He paints their faces with scars, blood, dirt, and fatigue. To weather the tires of his army jeeps, he drags them behind him during long walks.

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