Marwencol is an intimate, uplifting and often funny documentary that deserves to be talked about amongst the year’s best, even if it isn’t in most cases. It follows the recovery of Mark Hogancamp, who was left with severe brain damage after being beaten into a coma by five men outside a bar. He had to re-learn everything, including how to walk and the fact that he used to be married — but the fascinating part of his story comes with his unique method of therapy.
Using G.I. Joes and Barbies, Mark constructs Marwencol, a small-scale replica of a World War II town. He uses the everyday operations of the village to assist in regaining his eye-hand coordination and critical thinking skills. It also helps him overcome the trauma of dealing with the attack.
The beating has left Mark in such a state that he has to keep his eyes glues to the white line while walking down the street to avoid getting lost, yet he becomes so devoted to realism that he pulls a replica Jeep down the street for miles each day, just to give the tires the look of normal wear and tear.
Mark’s stunning photographs capture Marwenol’s residents and occurrences with such vivid detail that they catch the eye of an art magazine editor who begins to feature Mark’s photos. He also sets up a gallery for Marwencol, which forces Mark to decide whether to share his fantasy world while reconnecting with the real one.
From the very beginning, director Jeff Malmberg throws you into the world of Marwencol. We nearly forget the inhabitants are miniatures as Mark navigates us through the model town’s happenings as if he’s narrating a WWII epic. It may be a save haven for Mark, but danger is always present.
Each doll represents the alter-ego to someone in his own life, but Mark’s elaborate yarns feature Russian spies, gypsies and time machines. They’re often more imaginative than mainstream Hollywood narratives. That’s not to say they’re completely unpredictable — even in Marwencol, the Steve McQueen doll gets the girl.
Marwencol had a 7-day run this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Go see it if you’re lucky enough to have a theater showing it in your area. If not, the least you could do is save it to your Netflix queue.