In the lives of many artists, triumph can sometimes be snatched from the jaws of horrible tragedy. Great work can sometimes spring from unthinkable circumstances. Such is the case for Mark Hogancamp, the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s staggeringly good directorial debut, Marwencol (produced by Open Face, in association with Different by Design).
Hogancamp was savagely beaten by five teenagers during a night out in Kingston, New York. The attack left him with severe brain damage that required him to relearn how to walk, talk, eat and write. But part of that process of rehabilitation would be a therapy he would create on his own – a 1/6th scale, fictional World War II-era town he called Marwencol, built in his backyard and populated by dolls representing people and situations from his real life.
Malmberg became aware of Hogancamp’s world through seeing photographs he’d taken of the town and its populace in the pages of New York City-based art magazine Esopus. ‘I was immediately captivated, particularly by his captions and his little psychic admissions of what was going on in the town,’ Malmberg recalls. ‘I thought, ‘Man, there’s something really happening here and I want to figure out what it is.” Malmberg met with Hogancamp and saw more of the photographs, taken from new scenarios he creates daily. ‘I realized I wasn’t just fascinated by his photos, I was fascinated by him,’ says the director. ‘So it became my mission to get to know him and luckily we became really good friends.’
Malmberg says Hogancamp was open and receptive throughout the four years of shooting: ‘I think he knew there was something he wanted to share and something I wanted to understand as well.’ Malmberg says that with a wealth of material at his disposal, it was a race to the finish to make the film’s South by Southwest debut. ‘I think we finished about three days before our premiere,’ he laughs.
The film has done extremely well on the fest circuit – Marwencol snapped up the Grand Jury Award for best doc feature at SXSW, and Malmberg took home the HBO Emerging Artist award at Hot Docs. U.S. audiences will have an opportunity to see what all the buzz is about in the fall thanks to a distrib deal with The Cinema Guild. ‘Six months ago we were still trying to figure out the movie and now we’re accepting an award from Chris Hegedus,’ he says of the Hot Docs experience. ‘You can’t beat something like that.’
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