Marwencol is a small town in Belgium. When we visit, sometimes it's during World War II, sometimes it's after. Germans and Americans live there, sometimes at war, sometimes at peace. A deeply brain-scarred man, Mark Hogankamp, re-created it in his back yard and lives there. He named the imaginary village for himself and two friends, Wendy and Colleen. He is God in the village.
"Marwencol," the movie that opens here today, is a fascinating documentary by Jeff Malmberg, mostly life-affirming, occasionally scary as we watch and listen.
In 2000, Hogankamp, then 38 and an alcoholic, was beaten almost to death outside a Kingston, N.Y. bar by five young men. They mistakenly thought he was gay (he is not; the reason for the beating is revealed in the later going) and viciously stomped and assaulted him. His mother didn't recognize him, and the hospital photos are grisly. He was in a coma for nine days, awakened to discover all his memories were gone, along with his taste for alcohol.
When his medical benefits ran out, he was sent home, and slowly, carefully, fashioned his own therapy through Barbie and G. I. Joe dolls, built homes and roads and a cafe where he welcomes everyone but forbids fighting. Even with soldiers in uniforms, carrying weapons, Americans and Germans drink together, watch girls wrestling. Sex is okay. Violence is not. His photographs of his characters are fascinating, though they certainly lack polish.
Malmberg has put together a remarkable film. Watching Hogankamp arrange his characters and their lives produces an almost-eerie feeling; listening to him tell their stories, and his own, is even more so. And then someone tossed a monkey wrench into the mix by sending some of Hogenkamp's photographs to a New York art gallery. There was enthusiasm for the exhibition, but the gathering of crowds frightened him.
"Marwencol" is a delightful, if sometimes mystifying, experience as it demonstrates that a road to recovery can take some strange turns.
Marwencol opens today at the Plaza Frontenac.