This first-person Jeff Malmberg wrote about his acclaimed documentary “Marwencol” was originally published upon the film’s release. The film has since gone on to receive a Spirit Award nomination for best documentary.
Jeff Malmberg’s documentary “Marwencol” premiered earlier this year at SXSW, winning their Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. Malmberg shared an exclusive scene from his film with indieWIRE.
“Marwencol” is a documentary about the fantasy world of Mark Hogancamp. After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside of 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 dramas. Playing in the town and photographing the action helps Mark recover his hand-eye coordination and deal with the attack. When Mark and his photographs are discovered, the New York art world comes calling. 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.
For the scene “Rules of Town,” I wanted to introduce viewers to the Marwencol that existed in Mark’s mind. Mark’s world is really alive for him – this isn’t just playing with dolls – and I wanted to establish this idea early on for the viewer. This scene comes about fifteen minutes into the film and is the culmination of several ideas that have been established – it’s basically the point where Marwencol comes alive and begins for both Mark in his real life and for the viewer watching the film.
The genesis for the scene was the first day I ever met and shot with Mark back in 2006. He was talking about his town and he said to me, “There was one rule in my town – they had to be friends, be friendly with each other, behave. So they did, they were.” It was just one comment, sandwiched between other thoughts and ideas he was explaining to me that day. I didn’t stop him and ask for clarification. But the way he said it always stuck with me. It was said with such gravity and without a hint of irony. It was also said with a shade of weariness – as if this important rule had been broken on occasion and the resulting complications in “Marwencol” had been serious business. I thought about this comment a lot as time went on and eventually it became the root and heart of the “Rules of Town” scene. That’s one of the great things I found working on this documentary – the best scenes seemed to present themselves to me as I explored Mark and Marwencol. In contrast, all my ‘clever’ preconceived notions about scenes fell by the wayside, ringing false and not fitting in with the rest of the film. As a documentary director it’s good to have a plan but you can’t let that plan blind you to what’s right in front of you. It’s always going to be better than what you initially intended.
The scene is a combination of various interviews I did with Mark and his friend Bert over the four years that I filmed. One of my favorite aspects to this scene is the super-8 footage of the dolls. The jagged, dreamy quality of the super 8 film moving in and out of the gate seemed like a perfect representation of Mark’s mental state and his fight to regain his memories and his identity after the attack. This effect (which many people have assumed is some kind of software plug-in but is in fact completely analog) came about because of a mistake on my part. I had shot the dolls with my Canon 514 Super 8 Camera using macro with the dolls about four inches away from my lens. When it came time to transfer the super 8 film I realized that I’d blown focus on most of the doll shots – macro being a very sensitive setting on that particular camera. So there I sat in a telecine session at Spectra in North Hollywood with rolls and rolls of film that were out-of-focus. Necessity being the mother of invention, the colorist and I starting brainstorming about how to fix the problem. Eventually we landed on our solution: cranking up the sharpness on the telecine machine to fake focus and then running cellophane through the gate over the film to hide the fact that we’d cranked the sharpness. The resulting look – the shaky, barely controlled footage with strange light patterns running across it – seemed even more appropriate to the story I was trying to tell than the way I’d originally shot the dolls. It felt to me like we were seeing things the way Mark saw them in his ragged mind. And it was all because I’d made a mistake. I found this over and over at every stage of making the film – that your mistakes and preconceptions led to greater truths. It was just up to me to get past those little failures to see the larger truth. It’s a lesson I never want to forget going forward.