I didn’t know who I was.
A thirty-eight year old drunk leaves his local bar only to be jumped by five teenagers who proceed to beat him into a coma. This is the beginning of Mark Hogancamp‘s life as he knows it. The incident left him with brain damage to the point where he had to re-learn how to walk and talk. His memories from before were gone, his identity too. Only through home movies, photographs, and a stack of journals written while inebriated could he start to understand the man he used to be from a distance that will never grow smaller. To speak with Mark is to meet a kind, gentle man who sees this latest chapter as a second chance. To experience his work is to recognize the demons that remain.
What happens after his hospitalization is nothing short of a miracle considering the arduous circumstances left to combat. With Medicaid inevitably running out to cut short his therapy, Mark needed to create his own form of healing. Being an artist, his recovery became linked to his imagination. He couldn’t draw anymore thanks to the shake in his hands post assault, but with practice and patience he could construct models to create a new world with which to inhabit. Whereas Mark on the outside is riddled with anxiety and paranoia that another attack is imminent, his sixth-scale plastic alter ego living in the fictitious town of Marwencol (residing in his backyard) is conversely a courageous hero willing to take torture in the knowledge that his friends will always save him.
Jeff Malmberg‘s directorial debut takes this escape’s name by supplying Mark the compassion and empathy necessary to truly delve into his broken psyche. Marwencol is a hybrid of reality and fantasy merged by talking head interviews exposing crucial facts and photographed reenactments of revisionist World War II scrapes shedding light on the psychological turmoil roaring inside. This world of doppelgangers becomes an outlet for Mark’s rage and a safe space to remember what occurred from the prospective of a spectator rather than always as the victim. It’s here that Mark can love again, talk without judgment, and begin to put the pieces of his life back together. The work keeps him sane, the art gives him purpose, and the violence allows his newly sobered life its calm.
Mark’s is a hopeful story full of life despite it consisting mainly of inanimate objects. Friends and coworkers have a keen insight into who he is and accept what he does—cheering him on in many instances with an enjoyment from seeing themselves pop up in his “story” as leading players to live or die heroically. A couple outsiders even took note of what they saw (namely Mark walking down the streets around his home, dragging a toy truck with armed dolls behind him) and approached him with well-meaning curiosity instead of mean-spirited superiority. One was a photographer named David Naugle who in turn exposed his find to ESOPUS editor Tod Lippy. Suddenly Mark’s important hobby became a captivating art portfolio with publication and gallery potential.
But is he ready for the attention? Can he let these intimately personal images of a war waging inside his mind be seen by strangers who may construe them as posed frivolity? This is where Mark can spiral as other issues we weren’t privy to before crop up, including the motivating factor for that assault five years previously. What was a heartfelt biography of a man through fiction gradually peels back its layers of artifice to uncover the difficult push and pull happening within. This whole exercise was a manifestation of his inability to be himself and now he’s asked to do so on a public stage he never dreamed of standing upon. Will the self-destructive Mark of old return or has his rebirth’s bravery vanquished him forever?
The truth isn’t so black and white of course. Mark’s struggle is complex and his answers to face his fears are too. Credit Malmberg for taking a step back to let his subject tell the story without censor because it excels in that sphere of objectivity. It’s not about what Jeff thinks or what we think either. Mark is the only one who knows the pain and frustration he lives with each day. Only Mark knows how serious the romances and murders that occur in Marwencol are—how each simultaneously scars and heals him upon completion. There’s such emotion in his eyes when he speaks about events unfolding in his imagination, each fictional mission sometimes seeming more real than anything he experiences himself. This isn’t a game.
This is what makes his story so resonate. He didn’t create his art with the ambition to share his history with the world. He created this place specifically so he wouldn’t have to share it with anyone who didn’t already know him. But now that we see his parallel universe—and how it eventually mirrors reality by letting its alter ego manufacture its own—we can comprehend the effects of brain damage and the steps our minds take to overcome. This is art therapy to the nth degree and it’s working. Mark’s saga can therefore be inspiring on its own merits and important in how it shows others a template for confronting their own harsh realities. His make-believe isn’t born from child-like enthusiasm, but a darkness he’s only beginning to understand himself.
 Mark Hogancamp in front of one of his photographs of Marwencol. Photo by Tom Putnam. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
 Hogie marries Anna in front of the SS soldiers who captured him. Photo by Mark E. Hogancamp. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
 Anna, Chris and Jacqueline rescue Hogie from the SS. Photo by Mark E. Hogancamp. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.