In 2000 Mark Hogancamp, the subject and star of Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, was brutally beaten outside of a bar near his hometown, leaving him bloodied and brain damaged. After coming out of a coma, Hogancamp had to relearn how to do everything. He had completely forgotten his life from before the attack.

As a coping mechanism, what Malmberg refers to as both “physical and cognitive therapy," Hogancamp built Marwencol, a 1/6th scale WWII Belgian village that is populated with dolls of soldiers, whores, barkeeps, witches and more. Every character in Marwencol, which Hogancamp plays in every single day, has a doppelgänger in the real world.  Hogancamp's characters are bruised, weathered and deeply empathic; they represent the horrors of a forgotten past and the difficulty of rebuilding a life.

Film writer Jonathan Poritsky speaks with Malmberg about the film and Hogancamp, a bizarre genius and truly remarkable man, in the following TORO interview.

Q: How would you describe Marwencol to viewers?

marwencol2.jpgA: It’s about a man who gets lost inside his own fantasy world. The longer version is that it’s about Mark Hogancamp, who was, unfortunately, attacked outside of a bar in upstate New York by five teenagers. He was pretty much left for dead and was in a coma for a long time. When he came out of the coma he had significant brain damage and couldn’t remember anything about his previous life. As a therapy method he began building this town that eventually came to be known as Marwencol. This town is all 1/6th scale, all WWII themed and has representative dolls for everyone in his life in the town. He began taking photographs of the town both as a physical therapy method and a cognitive one that he created on his own. These photographs become “art” which puts Mark at a crossroads. He’s got the fantasy world that he created and the real world that likes his photographs.

Q: There’s something that you’re not telling me, something the film holds off for the third act and plays as almost a plot twist. Why is the reason Mark was attacked kept a secret?

A: Thank you for not spoiling it. I really think it’s better that people see it holistically. Mark revealed certain things about his life very early on, like on the second day, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Automatically I knew it was going to be part of the plot. When you see this revelation that he shares with you, it is very private and I wanted to be sensitive to that. I feel like in different hands it would almost catapult it into a “social issue film." You could invert this movie and it would be a film about society and hate crimes and all of these things. I really didn’t want to build the film that way because, sometimes, your subject, your friend, becomes this kind of lab rat who has a label on him.

Q: Plus, we’re talking about a brain damaged recovering alcoholic who spends his days in a 1/6th scale Belgian village. This other aspect of his life doesn’t seem so interesting by comparison.

I totally agree. But society is just so backwards.

Q: How did you discover Mark?

A: I subscribe to the incredible Esopus Magazine which appears in the film. Mark’s photographs were published in the magazine and it’s really the first time anyone looked at his photographs as art; he doesn’t really think of them in those terms at all. He doesn’t think of them as being for other people to see. There was a spread of his work in 2005. I normally work as an editor and I wanted a subject to try to shoot a short documentary. I saw those photographs and I was just blown away, especially by the captions. They seemed to intimate some sort of deeper world that I really wanted to know more about. I flew out to New York and met him and realized there was more than a short film there.

Q: Has protecting Mark been a concern of yours?

A: Oh yeah. Totally. It has gone as well as I ever could have imagined it going. You have a responsibility with somebody like that. He wants to be filmed but you have to be careful. Editorially, part of protecting him was making a distinction between what he was telling me as a friend and what he was telling me for public consumption. I made sure that he was comfortable with the narrative I was cutting. I showed him a cut before SXSW, made sure he was good with it. We changed his number, he doesn’t really live in the city where we say he does (he lives nearby), he no longer lives in the trailer that we shot him in … stuff like that. He’s an adult, he can handle himself, but you want to make sure that he is protected.

Q: How did you come into directing?

A: I graduated from film school knowing the Avid at a time when knowing the Avid was a marketable skill. I fell into editing as a way to make money. I didn’t really enjoy it until I started working with some amazing editors as an assistant. I was Angus Wall’s assistant for a lot of years. He cut Zodiac, I worked a little bit on Fight Club with him. At that point I realized what editing was capable of doing. I started cutting on my own, worked in commercials, found my way into long-form and then finally cut a documentary, Red, White, Black and Blue. I found the experience to be breathtaking. It was the ultimate editing exercise. I had been writing at that time but never had much success. Cutting that doc I was like, “Wow, this is like writing, but writing that I’m really good at!” When we finished that film in 2005, I thought I should try directing a documentary because editing is great, but you’re always sort of second in command. I love it, but at a certain point you want to make an editorial decision and not be told “no.”

Q How familiar did you become with the town of Marwencol?

marwencol1.jpgA: Pretty familiar. If someone tried to do a history of Marwencol, it would be huge, full of headers and footers and appendices. Mark would introduce new characters almost every day, so I would just try to keep up. I found it very intimidating. Mark plays in Marwencol every single day. There’s new characters, new plot twists … I would almost feel as though he was testing me. The most fun I had was shooting in the town.

Q: Marwencol premiered at SXSW, where it also won an award. Was it a conscious decision to open there?

A: It just sort of happened organically. My wife, Cris, always thought of SXSW as the place it would land and the place it would work. I was so close to the project that I don’t think I understood that until it was all over, but I think that it definitely was the right place to go. We really got to shine there, the audiences were amazing. They gave a lot of love to Mark at the screenings. I remember at the first showing, I was thinking, “let’s see how this goes off, let’s see how many walkouts we get.” But they were really pulling for the guy. It was a real mind-bender that people were responding. It could not have worked out better at SXSW. We won the grand jury award, we got theatrical distribution there, we got TV distribution there. It gave life to a movie that most festivals would have put in their midnight program.

Q: Are there plans for another film?

A: We’re trying to get this off the ground, so it’s a little hard to think about the next film. Things have started to pop in my head, which is a good feeling after working on one film for four years.

Marwencol begins its week long run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Thursday, November 4.