“Welcome to Marwen”: The Remaking of a Life

By Kathy Winings

In April 2000, just across the Hudson River from UTS’s Barrytown campus, a terrible assault took place outside a bar in Kingston, New York, an historic city that served as New York’s first capital.

Mark Hogancamp, an artist and showroom designer, was beaten almost to death by five young men using just their fists and feet. While drinking, Hogancamp had let slip that in the privacy of his own home, he was a cross-dresser. Taking exception to that, the thugs waited outside the bar and attacked him.

Suffering extensive brain damage, Hogancamp spent over 40 days in the hospital, including nine in a coma, healing and relearning how to walk, talk, eat, and trying to live a normal life.

Fortunately for him, Hogancamp awoke with no memory of the attack — but he also lost memory of his past life. It meant he had to find a way to deal with his constant anger and depression — all of which resulted from his traumatic brain injury. Thus was born the tiny village of Marwencol.

Built out of plywood scraps and other materials he found lying around, Hogancamp created an imaginary Belgian village and populated it with Barbie dolls and World War II action figures. Daily life was built around World War II narratives that he created, featuring the women as a band of heroes led by one American solider — Captain Hogie — going head to head with five Nazi soldiers in these different scenarios.

Marwencol became Hogancamp’s therapy on a daily basis. It also became a way for him to find a new career. As he played out his stories through posing the dolls in Marwencol, Hogancamp began to photograph them, ultimately coming to the public’s attention and establishing his career through gallery exhibitions that showcased his unique photographs.

This is the background story for director Robert Zemeckis’ new film, “Welcome to Marwen,” starring Steve Carell as Hogancamp and Leslie Mann as his neighbor, Nicol, who becomes his good friend as well as the inspiration for one of his female soldiers in Marwencol.

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