Monday, May 09, 2011


The Dispatch Rider
Photo by Mark Hogancamp

I just watched the film "Marwencol". I thought it was a stunning, thought-provoking, and insightful documentary. The backstory: Mark Hogancamp, a heavy drinker, was assaulted outside a bar one night by five men. They beat him so badly that he was in a coma for nine days. His face was smashed, his memory gone, his personality permanently altered, and he had to learn to walk again. Dumped from the hospital and then from therapy when Medicaid wouldn't pay anymore, Mark created his own therapy. He invented the town of Marwencol, located in Belgium in World War II. It is peopled by 1/6-scale dolls that Mark dresses, poses, and photographs, as they act out situations and stories. The photos have been exhibited in New York galleries, and caught the attention of filmmakers who created this documentary.

All the above is true and accurate. But it doesn't capture the power of this film. It is gripping on so many levels. On one, it is a story about traumatic brain injury (TBI). Mark was damaged in the same way that so many of our soldiers have been: his brain was badly battered and will never completely heal. You see him struggling with the simple task of walking, five years after the attack. You see him trying to make sense of his world and try to relate to people when he can't think the same way others do.

On another level, it is the story of a lonely individual who is trying to connect with others. He vaguely remembers being married at one time, but that is now gone. Now he wants to love and be loved, but he can't. Part of the reason is the TBI; part may be something else that the filmmakers decided not to touch upon. So Mark lives out his desires through the "people" of Marwencol.

On still another level, it is the story of art as therapy. Mark started down the road that led to Marwencol by a lucky accident, and he continued because he had to. He was dropped from Medicaid and had nothing else. Fortunately for him, Marwencol worked. Creating the town, the "people", and the stories gave him a world in which he could live. He could be a strong man, love a woman, fight evil (especially the attackers), be independent, and do the things that he couldn't do in real life.

And it's a story about art. Where does art come from? Watching Mark Hogencamp, I thought of Vincent Van Gogh, another individual with mental issues who created amazing images. The filmmakers discussed Mark's images as powerful images in their own right. There are other contemporary artists who photograph dolls, manikins, or other such stand-ins for real people, but virtually all of them do it in an ironic way. "It's a soldier! No, it's a doll (wink wink)". Mark's work has no irony in it whatsoever, something that I think is wonderful. Irony is over-rated, and I say that as somebody who has done a whole series of ironic paintings. If making art is a way of understanding your world, then Mark is a master. If you're an artist, are you willing to go the distance that he has?

And there are still other stories to the film, such as what led to the assault in the first place, who the "people" in Marwencol are, and even where the name "Marwencol" came from. If you're interested in brain injury, art as therapy, art as art, or just interested in a gripping story of somebody trying to make sense out of their life, see this movie. Put it on your Netflix queue. It's well worth watching.

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