Dec 26

“Welcome to Marwen”: Unique Post-Trauma Strategy

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five men and left for dead outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. After nine days in a coma, he awoke to find he had no memory of his previous adult life. He had to relearn how to eat, walk and write. True story behind Welcome to Marwen

Before Robert Zemeckis‘s new film Welcome to Marwen was the 2010 Marwencol, a highly acclaimed documentary that also depicted the story of Mark Hogancamp in a truer-to-life form.

What led to the life-destroying hate crime against Hogancamp? He’d “told a patron in a bar that he was a cross-dresser who liked to put on nylon stockings and heels” (Advocate).

Hogancamp happens to be a cross-dresser who’s heterosexual. “Though he does not identify as transgender,” states Ariel Sobel, The Advocate, “if Hogancamp had not survived the near-fatal attack he experienced for even talking about cross-dressing, his story would have resembled the many lives taken for not abiding by the societal rules of the gender binary.”

David Ehrlich, IndieWire, describes how Hogancamp created his own rehab program when health insurance no longer supported his needed care.

His solution? To create a rich fantasy world out of the 12-inch, 1:6 scale figures he once painted; a miniature town called Marwencol (located in Belgium circa World War II) in which he could re-enact his trauma in a refuge that was under his full control. A captain named Hogie became his pint-sized alter-ego, S.S. troops stood in for his assailants, and female dolls represented the various women in his life (Hogancamp even built a catfight bar for them to work in, as his version of the past assumed the feeling of a sweet, pulpy, and surprisingly asexual serial). The lifelike, hyper-expressive photographs he took of these scenes attracted some attention, and Hogancamp soon found himself celebrated as a naïve and enchanted outsider artist…

As Zemeckis portrays the women, included are “a loud Russian caretaker” (Gwendoline Christie), “a one-legged physical therapist” (Janelle Monáe), a coworker (Elza González), and his doll supplier (Merritt Wever), for starters. Plus two more special ladies:

Of course, the two most important women in Mark’s life are the one he hasn’t met yet, and the one he can’t seem to forget. First up is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a kind and curious soul who’s just moved in to the house across the street, and is trying to shake off a tragedy of her own. She also has a greasy and abusive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson)…

Finally, there’s Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), the wicked witch of Marwen, who murders any of the gals who get too close to her man Hogie. The only character with no human counterpart, Deja broadly represents Mark’s loneliness, though ham-fisted writing and her pill-blue hair make her seem like a manifestation of the anti-depressants that he takes every morning.

Considering the decidedly mixed-to-worse critical reviews of Welcome to Marwen, perhaps the emotion-tugging trailer itself is preferable viewing:

Selected Reviews

Emily Yoshida, Vulture: “The Marwencol documentary saved the reveal of Mark’s cross-dressing as a third-act twist, possibly to its detriment. The least that can be said for Zemeckis’s adaptation is its willingness to embrace that queerness from the get-go.”

Greg Cwik, Slant: “The whole endeavor feels like a disservice to Hogancamp’s story, in no small part because no one in the film feels human, even outside doll form. Everyone is a type: the pitiable loser for whom we feel bad, the perfect love interest for whom we cheer, and so forth.”

Chris Nashawaty, Ew.com: “…(M)ost of the heartwarming power of Mark’s stranger-than-fiction story is AWOL in its Tinseltown makeover. Steve Carell plays Mark with an uneasy mix of cloying simpleton smiles and just-under-the-surface shell-shock terror that lands firmly on the side of schmaltz.”

Mar 04

“Facing Fear”: Documenting a Transformative Hate Crime Aftermath

Nominated for an Oscar this year in the Best Documentary Short Subject category was Facing Fear, directed by Jason Cohen. At a running time of 23 minutes, it’s about the victim of a hate crime who by chance meets up with his perpetrator 25 years later. Read the tagline and you’ll know the gist of what happens: A moment of hate. A lifetime of forgiveness.

Matthew Boger at age 13 was kicked out of his home for being gay. While living on the streets of Hollywood, a group of 14 neo-Nazi skinheads savagely beat him and left him for dead. Amazingly, he survived.

Tim Zaal was an angry, violent neo-Nazi skinhead in his younger years. He once finished off a group attack on a gay kid by kicking him in the forehead with his boot.

Can you guess who that boy was?

When Boger met Zaal 25 years after the attack at The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where Zaal was scheduled to talk about his departure from the skinhead movement, they pretty quickly realized they already knew each other.

As stated on the Facing Fear film website about their process: “With their worlds turned upside down, the two embarked on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation that challenged both to grapple with their own beliefs and fears. Neither could imagine that it would to lead to an improbable collaboration…and friendship.”

For about seven years now, Boger and Zaal have teamed up together to give their presentations to various enthralled audiences.

Watch the Facing Fear trailer below:

Emma Diab, GALO Magazine:

Their individual accounts are the core strength of the film, giving viewers the chance to experience the story of that same fateful night from both the cold floor of the parking lot as well as in the midst of a heated group of thugs. Apart from the ingenious narrative, the cinematography was a powerful ally in the retelling of this story, and especially poignant in setting the scene for Boger to recount his version of the events on location.

Forgiveness is obviously a key theme in this story. Is forgiveness necessary in such circumstances? Cohen tells Briege McGarrity, Independent Film Quarterly:

The power of forgiveness certainly jumps out although I don’t necessarily want people to take from the film that it is the only way or the right way to go. We just want people to watch this story and see how it might play out in their own lives. In addition, I think a big theme is that of transformation and how people can change and why they do. We wanted to explore how the backgrounds and events in these mens’ lives shaped how they were able to become allies after such a vicious past.

Jessica Zack, San Francisco Chronicle:

The filmmaker intentionally gave equal weight and screen to each man’s perspective on what drove them to make peace, in Boger’s case with his assailant and in Zaal’s his reckoning with his violent past.

‘When you hear ‘forgiveness story,’ most people assume it’s about the victim forgiving the perpetrator,’ Cohen says. ‘But we were very cognizant that this story is 50-50, with two people involved. Tim had to go through a lot in terms of forgiving himself for how he had lived his life and the decisions he made. The process of forgiveness is a two-way street.’

FYI, a Young Adult novel based on their experiences was written by Davida Wills Hurwin and came out a few years ago. It’s called Freaks and Revelations.