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The film Welcome to Marwen caught my attention, with the first preview that I saw. It looked artsy and creative. However, the clincher for me was the fact that the movie is based on a true story. These movies, grounded in reality, always intrigue me.
Because of its based-on-a-true-story status, this post is more than a movie review. Join me in exploring the truth behind the film, Welcome to Marwen.
Welcome to Marwen Cast
This biographical drama/fantasy stars Steve Carell, Leslie Zemeckis, Merritt Weaver, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez and Leslie Mann. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen carries a PG-13 rating, for language, violence and adult situations, and has a run time of 1 hour and 56 minutes.
Welcome to Marwen Film Summary
Viciously beaten because he is different, and left for dead, Mark Hogancamp (Carell) miraculously survives and slowly recovers. He discovers that the attack left him with no memories of his previous life. Back at home, he creates a world in 1:6 scale, populated with 12 inch dolls. In the made up village of Marwen, Mark works through his trauma with the help of an alter-ego action figure, Captain Hoagie, and the dolls of Marwen, all based on kind women he knows in the real world.
Having lost his ability to draw, due to his injuries, Mark learns to capture Marwen through photography. As the court date approaches, when he will have to face his five attackers, Mark needs Marwen and its inhabitants to help him find courage and strength.
The True Story Behind Marwen
Mark Hogancamp, a former Navy man, was attacked on April 8, 2000, by five young men who waited for him outside a bar. Witnesses reported that Mark had too much to drink, and while chatting with the men, revealed a secret. He occasionally enjoyed wearing women’s shoes. Mark appreciated women, and felt attracted to them. He found that wearing high heels made him feel connected to that amazing feminine energy.
The men taunted him and called him a wide range of derogatory names. And then waited for him to emerge from the bar. Their horrendous actions were determined to be a hate crime and they were arrested. As recounted in the film, Mark nearly died, having been kicked repeatedly in the head by all five men. He was in a coma for nine days, and suffered brain damage that robbed him of his memories when he awoke.
After 40 days in the hospital, and a year in physical therapy, Mark learned to walk, talk and feed himself again. A man with artistic abilities before the attack, afterward he could not sketch. However, he owned an old Pentax camera and discovered he possessed an eye for photography. Completely adrift, in a hostile world, Mark created a tiny alternate reality of his own, crafted from scraps of plywood and repurposed materials. Marwencol emerged, named after himself and two women he had crushes on, Wendy and Collette. Wendy is portrayed in the movie, both as the woman and a doll in Marwen. Collette becomes Nicol in the film, his new neighbor who moves in across the street. By the end of the movie, the name of the village changes to Marwencol, just like the actual tiny town.
Women Rule the World
Mark populates Marwencol with 12 inch Barbie and Glamour dolls, and WWII action figures. He creates elaborate stories involving an American fighter pilot, Captain Hoagie, who is rescued and cared for by the all female population in Marwencol. The village is frequently attacked by fictional Nazis. In the movie, these “tormentors” will not stay dead. Representing his attackers, they return again and again, to terrorize him. Mark shares that he built an army of women to protect him because they have never attacked him. He says,
“Women rule the world. We’re just here to keep them company.”
The women in his life, after the attack, expressed kindness to him, helped him, kept him sane. In his village of Marwencol, he captured scenes and vignettes with his camera daily, and slowly worked his way through the trauma. Mark admits that in Marwencol, those five men have been killed over and over. In reality, the five were convicted of their crime. Only three did any jail time.
Healing in Marwencol
Although Mark created Marwencol as a way to heal, and never intended to share it, people began to notice the growing small scale village in the yard. Three years after its creation, a neighbor named David Naugle saw him walking along the road, pulling a scale model military jeep and photographing it. Naugle, who was a photographer himself, asked if Mark had any photos to share. When he saw Mark’s work, he was amazed and sent the photos to a New York art magazine, Esopus. The publication ran a spread, and art shows followed. A 2011 documentary called Marwencol captured Mark’s life and his unique art therapy. That documentary became the spark that led to the current film. In 2015, a book was released, titled Welcome to Marwencol, containing 600 of Mark’s photos.
In the movie, David isn’t portrayed. However, Mark’s work does get noticed locally and a gallery show opens, featuring his work. Part of Mark’s healing process includes feeling safe enough to leave his home, and Marwen, and appear in person at the gallery shows.
My Thoughts on Welcome to Marwen
I deeply appreciate this film. While Mark sets up scenes with his figures, and captures them with a camera, we get to see the dolls “come to life” in the movie. The CGI is great, turning Steve Carell and the ladies into dolls that resemble them and yet, look like, move like Barbies and action figures.
It is heart breaking to me, the intolerance people have for those who are different. Who gets to say who is different, anyway? Why are we so quick to judge another and then take matters further and punish him or her, for being unique? The film and the true story are about a man’s search for healing, on so many levels. His memories may have disappeared, as a protective measure. However, his art surfaced when he needed a way to work through trauma. I love that. I love that he found his way back into life, through his creativity.
How is Mark doing today? He’s been positively impacted by people who have cared enough to tell his story, through the documentary, book and now the film. He gets out more, attends gallery shows, sometimes wearing heels. He says,
“Things have gotten better, they have gotten as good as they’re going to get. Except my imagination. That keeps expanding.”
Beautiful, Mark. I think you are amazing.
The real Mark Hogancamp. Photo by Tim Knox
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