Intervention? That’s not reality. Try this new documentary about an addict’s spiritual journey

Mark Hogancamp’s alcoholism was literally beaten out of him. Now his trauma and transformation are on the big screen in the new documentary, Marwencol

BY MICHELLE MORRA-CARLISLE — I started dancing, really dancing, at 38. Until then, that ultimate form of stepping-out-of-my-shell was too much like stepping out of Michelle. My turning point came four years ago at Halloween when I donned a mini-dress with a wild psychedelic print, a big blonde beehive wig and electric green gogo boots. As it turns out, the alter ego I created — “Gogo Batgirl” — can dance, and not in a lame, white-bread way. She has no fear, moves gracefully and is a lot more fun at parties than my official “me.”

As freeing as that costume was, I was okay with storing it in a box afterward and going back to my everyday self.

The line between self and alternative-self is not so clearly defined for Mark Hogancamp.

A part-time illustrator and full-time drunk living in Kingston, NY, he was severely beaten outside a bar in 2000. When he woke from a nine-day coma he remembered nothing of his former life — not even that he liked the taste of alcohol. Instant recovery from his addiction, however, was only small solace for the brain damage that cost him his memories and fine motor skills and forced him to relearn to eat, walk, read and write.

American audiences have historically lapped up movies about overcoming trauma or helping lost causes. Our best-loved stories usually involve a human savior — like the journalist played by Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist, who helps homeless, schizophrenic Nathaniel Ayers find safety and rediscover the cello; or the teacher (Paula Patton) and social worker (Mariah Carey) in Precious, whose faith in a pregnant, illiterate 16-year-old (Gabourey Sidibe) free her from incest, physical beatings and despair. Unfortunately, human saviors don’t always materialize. Another kind of reality can set in — as it did for Mark Hogencamp when his health benefits ran out — and we must create our own little friend.

How one user healed himself without a self-help book, AA or rehab

To find his own brand of sanity, Hogancamp built a miniature world set in World War II era Belgium from scrap materials.

This world he called “Marwencol” has grown to fill his yard, and is home to more than 100 Barbie dolls and male action figures. He and his miniature world are the subject of Marwencol, a documentary by Jeff Malmberg that had its world premiere at the 2010 South By South West conference and won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. The film, released in theatres in October, shows an alter ego — and a whole alternative world — in action.

Hogencamp meticulously applies makeup on the dolls, styles their hair, treats them to designer shoes and pretty dresses. His male dolls in army fatigue receive the same attention to detail and get to ride in a toy army jeep, watch female wrestling in the miniature bar and fight battles. One of the dolls represents Hogencamp himself who (the real guy) is smitten with a doll named Anna.

The down-to-earth man who speaks on camera has a lot of rage but finds peace, and a new identity, in his fictitious town. The real Mark is single and lonely, but his alter ego (“Captain Hoagie”) gets to marry his favorite doll. Both versions of Mark are still off booze, but Hoagie still gets to whoop it up, mini-coffee in hand, at the bar. And although Hogencamp knows the difference between the real world and the miniature world he created, he places a few dolls by his bedside each night and wishes Anna would come to life.

When a photographer discovered Marwencol and the thousands of photos Hogencamp had taken of his dolls in various scenarios, his private world ceased to be private. Being “discovered” landed him coverage in an art magazine, an exhibit at a New York gallery and, ultimately, an award-winning documentary. I’m not sure that things turned out the way Hogencamp wanted. Between so-called reality and Marwencol, it seems pretty clear which world he prefers to live in while he heals from trauma.

Every October, along with my husband (Batman) I pick a new event downtown and rouse Gogo Batgirl from the basement. At this year’s disco party at a dance school, she shook her booty so convincingly she won first prize for The Bump. For Hogencamp’s sake I hope that he, too, will continue to access his other self to heal old fears and discover new possibilities.

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