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SXSW ’10 | Violence, Art & Therapy Collide in Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol”

SXSW '10 | Violence, Art & Therapy Collide in Jeff Malmberg's "Marwencol"

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening in the Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

Already a successful documentary producer, having worked on films that premiered at the Locarno and Sundance Film Festivals, Jeff Malmberg premieres his directorial debut, “Marwencol,” at this year’s SXSW.

A documentary about the fantasy world of Mark Hogancamp. After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside a bar, Mark builds a 1/6th scale World War II-era town in his backyard. Mark populates the town he dubs “Marwencol” with dolls representing his friends and family and creates life-like photographs detailing the town’s many relationships and dramas. Playing in the town and photographing the action helps Mark to recover his hand-eye coordination and deal with the psychic wounds from the attack. When Mark and his photographs are discovered, a prestigious New York gallery sets up an art show. Suddenly Mark’s homemade therapy is deemed “art”, forcing him to choose between the safety of his fantasy life in Marwencol and the real world that he’s avoided since the attack. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

Documentary Competition
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Producers: Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam
Editor: Jeff Malmberg
Music: Jay Clarke
Cinematography: Jeff Malmberg
Production Company: Open Face
83 Minutes

Director Jeff Malmberg on what lured him into the world of filmmaking…

I graduated from USC film school and now I work as a documentary and television editor. I really enjoy cutting because of how close I get to work with directors – supporting, articulating, and sometimes challenging their point of view to try to reach a place that hopefully they wouldn’t get to otherwise. I reached a point about four years ago where I wanted to challenge myself a little and use a different set of skills than I use in editing. I decided to start looking for a short doc subject I could shoot myself.  And that’s where the feature documentary “Marwencol” eventually came from.

Malmberg on what prompted him to make “Marwencol”…

I saw Mark Hogancamp’s photographs of his imaginary world called Marwencol in Esopus magazine. I found his story and photographs fascinating and the whole thing left me wanting to know more. I remember being particularly taken with Mark’s captions. They were little peeks into this amazing mind. I had so many questions and of course eventually I realized that that was what I’d been looking for in a subject. The initial hook into Mark’s world was immediately intriguing to me: Mark is beaten to within an inch of his life by five men in real life and to recover he builds a 1/6th scale World War II town where the doll representing him is hunted down by five Nazi dolls. Great material for a quick little ten minute short right? But as I began shooting with Mark I started finding all these other layers and meanings in the world he had created that were just calling out to be explored in a longer format. Some of them I think he was aware of some of them were more on a subconscious level. And sometimes he’d become aware of them as we were talking and that was amazing to see. Every time I would come to visit, new layers of his world would appear to me. They were always there of course – I just hadn’t seen them or thought they meant something else. So in terms of approach I really wanted to re-create that experience of discovery for the audience.

Malmberg on how he dealt with the distance factor in completing his film…

The biggest challenge was distance: Mark lives in upstate New York and I’m in California. It’s not really the kind of trip you can go over the weekend and then be back to work on Monday. The expense of those trips was really tough to deal with – the whole movie was paid for by my wife and I. I remember at times thinking, “Why couldn’t I do a doc about my next door neighbor or something?” but of course that’s not how it works. And I think like with hopefully any challenge in your path, you wind up with a solution that really helps your film in the end. To save on airfare I would just end up taking weeks off at a time and going to see Mark. It really helped our relationship (and ultimately the film) to spend large chunks of time together – driving him to the hobby shop, walking down to the store together, watching TV and just getting to know each other. You get to that great point a few years in where both of you are forgetting the camera is there and you’re just relating on a really human and deep level. I think we both really understood each other by the end and I consider Mark a real friend. I don’t know if I would have ever gotten to that point with Mark if I’d arrived on Saturday morning with my camera and then packed up Sunday evening.

On films that inspired him while making the film….

I tried to stay away from watching a lot of docs while I was making the film – particularly during editing. But I remember I kept a notecard of films that I specifically did want to watch as a reference for “Marwencol” – films that I’d seen in the past that I felt like might have some kind of kinship with what I wanted to do. Those films were: “Marjoe,” “Meeting People is Easy,” “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” “Rivers and Tides,” “Etre et Avoir” (“To Be and to Have”), and “Jefftowne.”

And on future any future plans…

I’m at that great point where “Marwencol” is just about done and I’m able to start exploring two ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I had so much fun doing this film and I want to go on another adventure. I definitely plan to keep filming Mark too  – there’s some interesting things happening in his life right now that sort of take off from where this film left off.

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