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Outsider-art documentary finds big emotion within tiny world

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4 Stars


Ten years ago, Mark Hogancamp was stomped by thugs outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y., until he fell into a coma. When he finally awoke after more than a week, he didn't remember who he or anyone else was, or how to walk or talk.

When his Medicaid coverage ran out (gotta love it), he was left unable to work, unable to interact with the outside world and unable to pay his mountain of medical bills. As a form of therapy, he created his own World War II-era town, called Marwencol, a 1/6-inch scale world within which he could lose himself - not to play god, but just to feel human again.

Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg stumbled upon this man on the side of the road, observed him for a while from a long-lens camera and finally approached him. What he found, and what we see, is a heartwrenching tale of wish fulfillment on a nearly molecular level; a broken man (whose doll counterpart is a scarred yet heroic 
ladies man named Captain Hogancamp) putting the pieces 
back together in whatever 
way he can.

Every time Hogancamp's story grows morose or mundane, he narrates more of the Marwencol backstory for us. We see these immaculately rendered scenes - jaw-dropping in their detail - and are transfixed by this master storyteller whose own story, while hinted at in Marwencol, is too unbearable to manage.

The film builds momentum as it reaches its climax, in which Hogancamp is taken out into the art world, where he has already won several mail-in photo contests simply by snapping pictures of Marwencol with a camera that's missing a light meter. One feels nervous and protective of the subject by then, as does Malmberg, who never gets in the way of Hogancamp's personality.

Marwencol is a touching portrait and a reminder that nobody should be tossed aside over something as basic as the right to exist. Sometimes a social safety net can drag up some genuine beauty.

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