A man is followed out of a bar one night by five thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life. Why he is beaten is a mystery that will haunt him for years. Maybe it was something he said. Maybe liquor had loosened his tongue too much and he let something slip he wouldn't normally have, like the fact that he has over two hundred pairs of women's shoes in his closet at home, all of them his, and that even though he likes women he doesn't feel like himself when he's wearing men's shoes, men's clothes.
Whatever it was that sparked the attack is just one of an endless number of memories that were erased from Barry Hogancamp's mind that night. Since then, life has been an endless series of baby steps. First, reconstructive surgery, then learning to walk and talk. As a Medicaid patient, he was entitled to therapy for awhile, until he hit his limit. But what good was therapy anyway? Could it rewrite the past? Could it help him gather up the pieces of his life and put them together again?
With no one to help him, Barry resolved to find his own therapy. Since then, he's been diligently photographing the tiny, plastic residents of Marwencol.
More a state of mind than anything else, Marwencol sits in Barry's front yard, where most people might keep a garden, and consists of a handful of waist-high buildings Barry constructed himself from wood scraps and found objects. A narrow, muddy road littered with Barry's own high-heeled footprints runs between them. This is Marwencol's main street and is often the stage where Barry's dramas play out: On the steps of the church here, a Barbie and a World War II era GI Joe kiss while a fellow soldier peeks around a corner, expressionless; up in the bell tower, an American sniper watches over the sleepy town, a light mist in the air; and below, on this corner here, a group of GIs in a Jeep wave to a pair of friendly German SS officers standing in a doorway. Marwencol is neutral territory, you see. Everyone's welcome, as long as there's no trouble.
To an outsider, these are just dolls of course, but to Barry they represent the only life he can remember. One resembles him, another his mom, his best friend, the married woman he fell in love with after leaving the hospital, and on and on. They are as real to him as the town he lives in, and, using a simple digital camera with a broken auto focus, he lives vicariously through them, sometimes revisiting painful memories (like alcoholism, his divorce, his tragic beating), and often staging fantasies of love and revenge.
If Barry's project started out as therapy, though, it's become something more since, as Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary (named after Barry’s fictitious town) poignantly shows. Through interviews with Barry and his friends and family, Malmberg reveals how Barry's work has advanced beyond the personal and into the artistic.
Another documentary about art, Exit Through the Gift Shop, made a bigger splash with critics and moviegoers last year, but to me it pales in comparison to Malmberg's heart-breaking portrait of Barry. Marwencol captures with great simplicity one of the saddest of all truths--that sometimes essential parts of ourselves can be suddenly and irrevocably stolen from us.
Barry responds to his tragedy by making art. Others might respond by appreciating it. In both cases, I think the result is often the same: a new creation, a second birth.
It's a mark against the film, in my view, that it doesn't try to explore this redemptive aspect of art in a spiritual sense, but that's my own obvious bias showing. What it does do, with great delicacy, is ask questions that cut to the heart of what it means to be human--questions like: who was I, who am I now, and who do I have it in me to be in the future?
Barry is still answering those questions.