(director: Jeff Malmberg; cinematographers: Jeff Malmberg/Tom Putnam/Matt Radecki/Kevin Walsh; editor: Jeff Malmberg; music: Ash Black Bufflo; Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jeff Malmberg/Tom Putnam/Matt Radecki/Kevin Walsh/Chris Shellen; Cinema Guild; 2010)

What makes this an unusually strong film, is that there’s an unquestionable genuineness about this tragic story that lets us see how rage, hatred and violence can only lead to negative results.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Jeff Malmberg’s debut documentary (one that took four years to make) is an unusual and stunning true story about a 38-year-old amateur artist and alcoholic named Mark Hogancamp, who ten years ago (in 2000) was severely beaten by five thugs outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, NY, and after coming out of a coma and spending 40 days in the hospital suffered from brain damage, significant memory loss–to the point where he had to ask others about his life since he had no idea of who he was, and his punched-in face had to be rebuilt. The vic lost his taste for alcohol and, as one would expect, felt insecure in the real world as he was still haunted by the nasty beating as he was forced to forge new paths. What Mark had going for him was a rich imagination, which he used to create his own little world through his hobby of working with Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe figures. With those items, he built in his trailer backyard a tiny fictionalized World War II Belgian town he called “Marwencol.” He used that hobby as a therapy, as he dressed up the town with soldiers and women who reflect his alter ego and resemble his friends, neighbors and anyone he has contact with. His fantasy world has soldiers from different countries living there in peace, while the SS agents (used as reminders of the thugs who attacked him) resort to a senseless act of violence against the figure that represents him. But they are attacked in revenge by the many doll figures in town, which gives Mark a chance to get his imaginary revenge.

The film is operating on all cylinders for the following scenes: when showing the struggling to get back his life vic walking along the hometown highway with his toy Jeep, where the riders are heavily armed soldiers and the real civilians don’t know he’s a mentally handicapped person; his obsession with collecting women’s shoes and the climactic scene of showing his hobby on display at a Greenwich Village art gallery show and getting a reaction from a live audience and a very positive review from the Village Voice art critic.

The film is far from perfect, as it has certain problems regarding the telling of the narrative: for one thing, we are left for most of the film not knowing why Mark was attacked (learning well into the film that it was because he mentioned to the thugs in the bar that he was a cross-dresser); also after becoming sympathetic to his tragic plight, we never learn what happened to the beasts who did so much harm to him. There seems to be a disconnect in this narrative as I can’t help getting the feeling something’s missing in the story, even if that might not be the case.

What makes this an unusually strong film, is that there’s an unquestionable genuineness about this tragic story about survival that lets us see how rage, hatred and violence can only lead to negative results. It’s somewhat reassuring, inspiring and affecting to know that despite all the damage done to the vulnerable vic that he can still have some hope after many years of trying to get it together without the benefit of professional help (his Medicaid coverage ran out and he was left with no insurance to cover medical expenses, which is an indictment on the American healthcare system). It seems like a miracle that he survives such a vicious attack on his own by retreating into a safe manufactured fantasy world, and that he finds without any help from others a way to heal his psychological wounds. Though it might not be the solid imaginary world the poet William Blake envisioned, it’s still a world that amply shows the real war Mark is fighting in his head and how he’s learning to live in that world because despite all the damage done to him the bad guys couldn’t take away his imagination. That clearly delivered message of resilience remains the no-nonsense straightforward film’s most poignant moment and one that shouldn’t be lightly taken when trying to reason why this film is so impressive and moving, as credit must go to the filmmaker who treats his subject with the utmost respect and never lets the pic become a freak show.

REVIEWED ON 11/12/2010 GRADE: A-