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Directed by: Jeff Malmberg

Starring: Mark Hogancamp

In 2000, Mark Hogancamp left a bar late one night and was attacked by five men who beat him into  coma and close to death. Nine days later Hogancamp wakes up from his coma and has no memory of who he is, or even how to do basic things like walk or write. After 40 days, Hogancamp’s insurance runs out and he is kicked out of the hospital, left on his own and without therapy. Friends and family try to help him remember his past life, and he soon learns that before the attack he was a hopeless drunk, his journal tells him that he had terrible bouts of depression. Hogancamp remembers nothing of this life, nor does he have any of his past impulses to drink. Hogancamp’s brain was permanently damaged and he has great difficulty doing everyday things like going to the store or keeping a job, but there is one place he is comfortable.

Marwencol tells the story of Hogancamp’s homegrown therapy and his regeneration as a different person. Shortly after leaving the hospital, Hogancamp began tinkering with toy models, and very quickly built the town of Marwencol, a WWII-era Belgian town populated entirely by beautiful women (all the men have been killed by the SS). Hogancamp has also constructed an alter-ego for himself, an American pilot whose plane crashed just outside Marwencol and who was welcomed into the town with open arms, he was even given a building where he lives and runs his bar Hogancamp’s Ruined Stocking. Here, Hogancamp has built for himself a paradise of sorts, a place where love and drama, adventure and sex all take place, a whole world that Hogancamp controls and where he can hide from the threat of the real world. Hogancamp is so fixated on the fantasy of Marwencol that most of the time it seems more real to him than anything else; when he is interacting in the real world, all he talks about is Marwencol and events in the real world directly impact the events of Marwencol. The most honourable gesture Hogancamp can make is to create a character for someone important to him in the real world, but likewise if someone hurts him in the real world, they will be snapped out of existence by Deja Thoris, The Belgian Witch of Marwencol. Through his tiny town, Hogancamp is able to live out his wildest fantasies without fear of being judged or rejected or afraid; his alter-ego has a girlfriend, gets married, goes out to the pub with friends, has adventures and always come out on top. When Hogancamp walks two miles to the store, he can’t bear to go alone so he drags behind him a tiny military jeep full of heavily armed soldiers to protect him. Hogancamp is a man full of sadness and pain, but he has found a beautiful way to get the venom out and live a relatively peaceful life.

I’ve been waiting to see Marwencol for quite some time, and I had expected that it would be mostly about the process of art and creation. I assumed the town of Marwencol would be treated as a metaphor for mimesis, used to discuss how the lines between life and art become blurred and eventually one can’t exist without the other. While that’s an inevitable element of the film it’s not the  point of it, and that becomes clear the moment something very important is revealed about Mark Hogancamp. There is one element of his old personality that Hogancamp held onto after the attack, and that’s his affinity for wearing women’s clothing. In fact, evidence suggests that his cross-dressing was the spark that ignited the attack in the first place. Hogancamp is comfortable only in women’s shoes, he likes to wear stockings under his pants, his greatest wish is that he would have the courage to wear his chiffon skirt to his own art opening.

Marwencol is not only a film about creation and submersion into art, it’s about creating a place for oneself when the real world doesn’t cut it. We live in a world full of social media, Second Life, blogs, vlogs, forums, WoW and the digital identity. This is a world that offers unique opportunities for misfits and outsiders, video games and the Internet afford those people the chance to belong, the chance to change or create heir identity and to meet other people. The trouble with those opportunities is that they also create the chance that one will lose themself in the fantasy, become unable to separate the virtual world from the truth. With every new step into social media and cyberspace we take, the line between real and virtual becomes less tangible.

Marwencol observes this trend in the life of one man but doesn’t pass judgement, it watches as he ruins some relationships but then creates newer, stronger ones as well. Hogancamp’s tiny world, and the photographs he takes eventually got noticed by the New York art community, and the film ends rather full of inspiration. This is a gentle and beautiful man, he was given a second chance on life and has grown obsessed with second chances. He is no longer hurting himself, and has in fact found a way to let himself grow, to become comfortable with who he wants to be. Marwencol is such a patient film, in love with its subject and willing to give him the time he needs to tell all of his stories.