Documentaries come in many shapes and sizes. Whether it’s the political exposé of a Michael Moore documentary, or the poetic real-life examinations of Werner Herzog, the natural world observations synonymous with Sir David Attenborough, the journalistic investigations of Errol Morris, the weird and wonderful of Louis Theroux, the fly-on-the-wall style of many cheap TV real-life police shows, and so on and so forth. Whatever your flavour of choice, documentaries primarily do one thing: They tell stories.
Sometimes they do this with a slant or bias, no matter how objective the attempt to portray the subject. It is unavoidable. Regardless of how the meaning is encoded in the documentary by the filmmaker, it will be decoded by the observer in their own way. The viewer’s culture and experiences will alter how they interpret the story being told. It gets even trickier when the the subject is of the kind that Jeff Malmberg chose to expose in his 2010 documentary Marwencol about the life of the brain-damaged social recluse Mark Hogancamp.
After suffering life-altering injuries in a brutal attack, Hogancamp finds his own form of therapy through recreating stories in his 1/6th scale World War II-era town, replete with scale models of soldiers and townsfolk. As part of his recovery, Hogancamp begins photographing the scenes in his back garden fictional town of Marwencol – a portmanteau of his and some close friends’ names.
It was through these images that Hogancamp was first noticed, as his self-proscribed cost-cutting therapy landed him in an art gallery. Malmberg takes a non-judgemental back seat and allows his subject to explain in his own words his rationale for justifying how he lives his life. His story is tinged with sadness and tragedy all through this indie documentary. At almost every step, Hogancamp is met with some form of hostility to varying degrees. From being the “weirdo” guy who’s seen dragging his toy jeep around town on a string, to the failure of his personal relationships and the unlikelihood of them ever being repaired.
But there is also warmth here. There’s a sense of triumph through adversity. This is a man who has been failed by the system, failed by society and – harsh though it seems to say – has failed himself. It’s a warts-and-all tale about a man who was no hero to begin with, who almost lost everything in a cruel twist of fate, yet now prospers in a way that realises a potential that had lain dormant.
Clive Barker (he of Hellraiser fame) once wrote in his co-authored (with Mark Millar) satirical fantasy comic book series Next Testament that ‘non-fiction is fact, but fiction is truth’. But non-fiction can also contain truths; about us as a species, as people, and how we all behave around one another. Non-fiction too can open up our eyes to new worlds and concepts that we might not have ever given the time of day to before. It isn’t just about relaying facts.
It’s no surprise that Hogancamp’s story has been picked up for a Hollywood movie. Robert Zemeckis was the man charged with bringing the story to the silver screen in time for awards season. It is a tale ripe for big Academy gongs to head its way as well. Steve Carell will lead the drama as he bids to go one better than his nomination for Foxcatcher.
Welcome to Marwen released in the US just before Christmas and will arrive in the UK on New Year’s Day. Regardless of what Barker thinks, asking a fictional retelling of Hogancamp’s story to convey the same level of depth of emotion that Malmberg’s non-fiction documentary carries is a tough task indeed.