My brain has been hijacked.
A couple of weeks ago on #dollchat (on Twitter), Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu was talking about “Marwencol,” whatever that was. I’d come in late that #dollchat as I was ill, so was rather clueless as to what the heck he was going on about. His reply was, in essence but with more info, “It’s a documentary. Go watch it for yourself.”
A couple of days later, I did.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
“Marwencol,” for the uninitiated, is a small Belgian village during WW2 that was founded, and is built, furnished, and peopled entirely, by a gentleman named Mark Hogancamp, from Kingston NY, which is also coincidentally the home of Tonner Dolls. It’s also the title of a documentary about Mark Hogancamp. Mark’s had a rough life, battling with alcoholism and homelessness. When he was 38 years old, Mark had his brain stomped to mush by five men outside a Kingston bar. He had to relearn everything—suddenly, in his late 30s, he found himself back in infancy, learning to walk and talk and function. This was a sharp turn in a life that had already had plenty of steep drop-offs.
What happened in the minutes before Mark was kicked nearly to death is that he mentioned to a stranger that he’s a crossdresser: he likes to wear women’s clothes and shoes (the shoes are especially important, and one moment in the film made me both laugh and recognize myself: he was standing in Greenwich Village in NYC outside an art gallery showing his work, looked down, and muttered in disgust “Fuckin’ man shoes.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said “Stupid fuckin’ girl shoes,” I’d have some serious scratch). He lives in a small, rural, conservative town, and at that time was in a subculture of drunks. Rural drunks, for those not familiar with them, are incredibly, viciously dangerous. I was almost beaten myself more than once for being different in a rural town, once at the hands of my alcoholic brother, who came after me with a baseball bat for not acting in the proper gender role, completely terrified that I might be a lesbian (and at the time, I was). Beating me to death would have made more sense to him somehow than just leaving me alone to live my life.
Mark’s medical insurance ran out before his needs did, and he was booted out of the hospital and out of therapy. Mark proved, however, to be a lot more resilient than anyone could have expected, and made his own therapy that turned to transformative art.
I don’t want to do a summary of this story; many others have done it more eloquently and at more length than I have, so I don’t want to rehash. I was touched so deeply by this film, though, that I’ve felt compelled to do two things: write a bit about it, and help Mark make Marwencol as real as he needs it to be.
Marwencol is populated entirely by dolls and action figures in 1/6 scale, about a Barbie’s size, and there are a lot of Barbies in Marwencol. There are also characters representing people in Mark’s own life, and Mark himself. Col. Mark Hogancamp, a US soldier in WW3 Belgium, is the viewpoint character, and when Mark talks about this character, it’s self-referential: “I went into Marwencol and found that…,” “Anna and I went to...,” “I was surrounded by Nazis…” Sometimes the line between Mark the man and Mark the doll and character blur: “I won $40 in a photography contest online, so I took that money and bought my wife.” Late in the film, when asked “Who’s Anna?” Mark immediately replies “My wife.” Then he corrects himself for the social comfort of those around him, and explains that Anna is his character’s wife, although she is much more than that to Mark.
That precise moment in the film probably did more to make me understand the mind of Mark than any other single moment. Marwencol isn’t a hobby, or a photography project, or a set for stories about an imaginary village. Marwencol is Mark Hogancamp, and Mark Hogancamp is Marwencol. They can’t be separated.
I’ve written in this blog before that I’m synesthetic, and I can see some quality of that in what Mark is doing. I wonder if he was synesthetic before the attack. He was an artist, but can no longer draw. He’s taken that artistic vision and pushed it into one more dimension, giving it space and life. Drawing a new reality would be one way to express the huge changes in his life, but taking it and making it real—at least real in plastic and scrap wood—is extraordinary. And it is real, a 1/6 scale populated village in his backyard, subject to the same weather as Mark, the same physical limits as Mark, and to a certain level, the same budgetary constraints as Mark.
The dolls themselves….this is where I hit a verbal wall and find this hard to articulate, so please forgive any overstatements I seem to be making. The dolls are alive, they are people, and they love and fight and drink and do whatever it is that people do in a Belgian town in WW2 days, according to Mark’s interpretation. There’s a cemetery in Marwencol for the hopelessly broken dolls. Anna, Dejah Thoris, and another doll have a place in Mark’s bedroom, on a little bed on the table next to his bed, and they get nicely tucked in at night. This isn’t a doll collection, this is a living, breathing town of living, breathing, very small people, who live their lives inside a reality created by Mark. They’re still plastic dolls. He can pop their heads off (with an apology), change their hands, manipulate them in any way he wants. But he doesn’t do this to show them, or make the collection better, or just make them prettier for a diorama. He does this to make all this more real.
Several of us want to help him do this. Mark is on disability, and can’t accept cash for Marwencol projects, or even for his art, without seriously jeopardizing the disability payments he’ll need for the rest of his life. But he can accept gifts, of materials, dolls, tools, supplies, and all the stuff Marwencol needs. Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu, Terri Gold, and me, along with any others who care to take part, are putting together some of that stuff to help Mark get Marwencol into a new storyline or just functioning more closely to Mark’s vision and needs. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to know more. I’ve gotten him some tools, putty for vehicle repairs, paint bottles, brushes, and a GI Joe so far, and this weekend will be searching the dealer’s room of a large scifi con for anything else that would help him. There should be some interesting imported articulated female 1/6 scale figures there (fanboys plus plastic equals girl dolls with big busts).
I’ve been evangelical that everyone see this documentary, and have reminded my husband every couple of days that it’s streaming on Netflix now. Streaming. Netflix. NOW. Go watch it. 83 minutes. Go. Watch it now.
I've not posted pics here because I don't have direct permission from Mark's representatives to do so, and because I want your visual curiosity to go NUTS and make you see the film.