Thursday, April 14, 2011

Marwencol: Trauma in Miniature

US, 2010
Directed by Jeff Malmberg

When I was in grad school, one en vogue topic in the film studies academy was "traumatic memory." This is an interdisciplinary research area that uses elements of psychology, history, and film to examine the holes trauma can leave in a person's memory, and the ways people process and make sense out of trauma. Academics interested in this topic would have a field day with Marwencol.

Marwencol is a documentary about Mark Hogancamp, a man overcoming a devastatingly traumatic event. In 2000, Hogancamp was beaten nearly to death by a group of young men, leaving him comatose for nine days and so severely brain damaged that he had to relearn almost every task he'd previously taken for granted. He also lost most of his pre-injury memories. But, because he had no money or insurance, Hogancamp was forced to leave therapy before he was fully healed—if, indeed, one can heal fully from something like that. With a suggestion to make his own therapy as a starting point, Hogancamp began building and photographing an elaborate scale model town in his backyard.

The town, a fictional Dutch village called Marwencol, exists in the milieu of WWII as filtered through Hollywood, fantasy, and Hogancamp's own life. He relearned basic physical and mental skills by intricately posing and photographing a range of dolls (including military replicas, a Steve McQueen action figure, and a gaggle of Barbies) as he puts them through an epic, winding story of his own invention. Hogancamp incorporates both his own doll alter-ego and those of his friends, family, and coworkers, into his make-believe world, blending the real with the imagined.

Hogancamp's perspective, as displayed not only through many interviews, but through his photographs themselves, isn't one of making "art" or invoking any kind of kitsch factor. He uses Marwencol as a sort of alternative to the real world; a smaller, safer place where he can control the narrative and interact with others without the inherent risks found in reality. He even contextualizes his own beating by making the perpetrators into the villainous SS officer dolls who are always looking for Marwencol.

Hogancamp talks about his characters as if they were real, self-determined individuals, which gets very strange when he's speaking about characters based on people he actually knows. But who amongst us doesn't already engage in a similar activity? We all project our own baggage, fears, and aspirations onto other people, whose minds we can never truly know. Psychologists understand that we tend to assume others to be more like ourselves than they actually are, which leads to dissonance. Hogancamp does the same thing, only externally and in a dissonance-free environment.

And, in terms of making sense out of a senseless tragedy, why shouldn't he externalize a process that most people keep inside? By placing his grief and need for reason into the familiar WWII dynamic of good and evil, Hogancamp can come to terms with what might otherwise be a gnawing desire for unattainable answers. He can channel his rage and revenge fantasies into a consequence-free world, one where his limitations, old and new, don't matter. And while he might never have intended them to be such, his well-shot, highly-emotional photographs are art, in the truest sense: an expression of his emotional state, made real and intuitively understandable to others.

Malmberg's film is extremely sensitive with this delicate topic—he has to avoid either appearing to exploit Hogancamp and his illness, or displaying any irony about his "art"—but does not shy away from Hogancamp's dark side: prior to his beating, Hogancamp had been a barely-functional alcoholic. Now, he can no longer stand alcohol, but his fears and lingering impairments make it difficult to leave his comfort zone. Malmberg structures the film around Hogancamp's discovery by New York "outsider" art magazine Escopus, and the subsequent planning of his first gallery show in the city. This structure works as another subtly-imposed narrative, one showcasing Hogancamp's twin needs to be reintegrated into "society" and to be accepted (and accept himself) as he is.

There is one late-in-the-game twist that I won't share here, because obviously Malmberg has his reasons for holding off on this information until nearer the film's end. While I personally disagree with this creative decision, as it's not a particularly dramatic revelation, I get why Malmberg—a first-time filmmaker—might have done things this way. The film doesn't really suffer, at any rate, and that's far more important than any simple criticisms about information that we could have been given at the start.

The "traumatic memory" crowd, who often study the Holocaust and related films, are fond of a dictum, adapted from a quote by cultural theorist Theodore Adorno, which is often paraphrased as: "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz." This is generally taken to mean that art is meaningless in the aftermath of horror. Marwencol goes a long way towards proving the opposite. Far from being meaningless, art is perhaps the only path through which human beings can cope with the enormity of tragedies both global and personal. It is a way for people like Mark Hogancamp to exorcise their demons, to give other people a hint of what it's like inside a traumatized mind, and spread the sort of understanding that can perhaps, in the future, prevent people from traumatizing others in the first place.

Note: Marwencol will be airing on PBS's Independent Lens later this month. Check your local listings and do try to watch this remarkable story.

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