Therapy takes many forms, from traditional conversation to intimately unconventional. Even exercise or cooking can work, as can any activity that provides a channel for thoughts and emotions. Therapy can be creative — like building a miniature town populated with dolls.
In WELCOME TO MARWEN, opening on December 21, a man creates a whole community set during World War II after being beaten nearly to death. He takes photos of the place, which he calls Marwen, as a way to process the sense of safety and memories he lost after the attack.
The most incredible thing about the film is that it is based on a remarkable true story — here’s the tale that inspired WELCOME TO MARWEN.
A Vicious Attack
In 2000, Mark Hogancamp (above) was killed by five men outside a bar in rural New York state. That’s not a typo. Hogencamp was actually dead for moments after the brutal beating, before being revived by paramedics. The men beat him because he was a cross-dresser, and his identity was nearly taken away by the attack.
The violence inflicted on Hogancamp was severe. He had brain damage, which cost him most memories of his life before the attack. He was so badly injured that he was almost unrecognizable, and spent nine days in a coma. When he was released from the hospital over a month later, Hogancamp was a changed man. He needed a way to process what had happened. So he built one.
The solution was simple, but not obvious. Hogancamp created a town in his backyard. This miniature hamlet, populated by soldiers and citizens represented by Barbies and WWII dolls, looked like an occupied European village during World War II. Hogancamp created an avatar for himself, and named characters after other people he knew. Even the town was named after people — he called it Marwencol, combining his name, Mark, with the names of two women he knew, Wendy and Colleen.
Hogancamp had a good eye for poses and lighting, and he took impressive photos of Marwencol. The pictures connected to intricate and expansive backstories he created for all the residents of the town. To get extra grit for the pictures, Hogancamp would distress some of the dolls and miniature vehicles by dragging them on the road he lived on. That got him noticed by another photographer, David Naugle, who started taking pictures of Hogancamp. Those pictures led to a Marwencol exhibition at a New York art gallery — and suddenly Mark Hogancamp was a minor celebrity in the art world.
From Therapy To Documentary
That isn’t even the end. The 2010 documentary MARWENCOL, by Jeff Malmberg, told this surprising story. It’s a beautiful effort that patiently reveals many aspects of Hogancamp’s personality and experience. The film watches as he nervously prepares for that first gallery show, and observes him creating scenarios in the doll-size town behind his home.
Now WELCOME TO MARWEN is an adaptation of MARWENCOL, which itself is an adaptation of Hogancamp’s tumultuous life and unlikely recovery. Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, CAST AWAY) has been developing the film for years, and created incredible animated versions of the dolls populating Hogancamp’s WWII town. Steve Carell stars as Mark Hogancamp. Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, and Gwendoline Christie all play women in the real world, and in the fictional town of Marwen.
WELCOME TO MARWEN opens on December 21.