WHEN Jeff Malmberg first came across Mark Hogancamp's photographs in New York art magazine Esopus, he had two thoughts. The first was ''wild photos''. The second: ''what a great story.'' Malmberg, a film editor, had been looking for a topic for a short film and Hogancamp's life story and his offbeat outsider art seemed a perfect fit. Not long after, he flew from Los Angeles to New York, to meet his would-be subject and film for a few weeks. Five years later, he showed the final edit to Hogancamp in a moving scene preserved on YouTube in which the artist tearfully tells his mother over the phone: ''Oh my god … He told my story so well. He told it exactly as I would have told it if I knew how.''
The film, titled Marwencol, follows the unexpectedly compelling tale of a man attempting to rebuild his life after a horrific accident. While Hogancamp cuts an eccentric and unlikely hero, his determination to break from his past and forge a new life has universal resonance.
Hogancamp was out drinking in a Kingston bar one night in 2000 when an altercation with a group of drunken youths led to an assault so violent his memory was erased. After nine days in a coma and 40 days in hospital, he was released into the care of a friend who spent two years nursing him back to health: he had to learn to walk, talk and write all over again. When the money for his medical rehabilitation ran out, Hogancamp initiated his own therapy: he started building a one-sixth-scale World War II-era Belgian village - dubbed ''Marwencol'' - beside his trailer home and populated it with figurines: doppelgangers of friends, family and his attackers. Each day he staged events: meetings, romances, sieges and excursions, some of which re-enacted past events in his life, such as his assault, while others played out issues he was grappling with in his day-to-day relationships.
While physically manipulating the dolls retrained his tactile skills, the interactions provided an avenue for psychological healing. He documented this lively narrative on camera and the resulting photographs were published and exhibited in a New York gallery. The lead-up to the exhibition's opening forms the trajectory of the film.
Malmberg, now in Italy, where he's filming his next documentary, has since won awards throughout the US and Europe, including the grand jury prize for best documentary at South by Southwest and the Cleveland, Seattle, Woodstock and Boston film festivals. In doing so, Marwencol found an audience far greater than Malmberg intended.
''We would openly joke about the film being seen by nine people but maybe that's the reason it really struck a chord, because it's genuine [and] heartfelt,'' he says.
The film's most important audience, Malmberg insists, was Hogancamp: ''I was really fortunate in that by the time I got in touch with Mark, it had been five years since [his] attack and he was really ready to open up. Marwencol was running fast and furious but it was still a really private thing. I think he'd thought about what had happened to him a lot but he hadn't spoken to anyone and the film was his chance to do that.''
By far the most engaging aspect of the documentary is the bond of friendship and respect between the two men. Malmberg recalls identifying with his subject immediately: ''It was a time in my life when I was looking for a way to kind of start my life over and was curious about how other people had done that. And here was a person who had started his life over in such an interesting, creative way.''
Rather than seeing escapism in Hogancamp's miniature world, Malmberg saw a man negotiating a path back into the real world, albeit a kooky one. At one point Hogancamp re-stages his violent attack only for his doppelganger to be rescued by a team of sexy Barbies, one of whom he later weds in an elaborate, miniature-scale ceremony. The vignette marks a small epiphany: the scenario of trusting someone and of realising you're a person worth rescuing.
Filming Hogancamp's daily routine was far from an exercise in the mundane. This is a man who thinks nothing of walking the three kilometres to his nearest supermarket in full WWII regalia dragging a toy truck filled with dolls, often encountering en route the people the dolls are named after. ''Oh sure, or you'd take him in the car on the way to get cigarettes and you would bump into three people who were in Marwencol who wanted updates of their dolls,'' Malmberg says. ''It was this really bizarre macro/micro situation of a real town and an imaginary town where things were constantly being played out.''
Malmberg likens it to dreaming: ''You know how sometimes you'll have a dream and it's somehow related to issues you're grappling with in your life? And later on you'll think to yourself, 'Oh, right, this was actually me trying to figure out this situation?' He's doing that but while he's awake.''
Determining who Hogancamp was before his attack was also an exercise in dreamwork. The film captures him examining photos of his wedding to a wife he doesn't remember and reading personal diaries that document his battle with alcoholism and vicious inner demons. ''He'd often say to me when we were hanging out, 'You know, Jeff, if you knew who I was before the attack you wouldn't be friends with me','' Malmberg says.
The irony of the attack is that it cured Hogancamp of his alcoholism. One scene shows him sweeping the floor of the bar where he works; he looks up at a row of bottles and talks about the relief of not being tempted to touch them.
Malmberg remains friends with Hogancamp and still visits Kingston with his wife, who co-produced the film and is now working on a book with the artist. The two have dolls that live in Marwencol and photos from the miniature wedding Hogancamp staged with them. ''My doll has graduated from carrying lots of cameras around his neck to wearing a Malmberg Studios jacket and pointing at Kevin's [co-producer Kevin Walsh] doll and telling him what to do,'' Malmberg laughs.
That said, Malmberg says he never asks too much about his character for fear of the repercussions. ''The first weekend of filming he took me into the kitchen of where he works at the Anchorage and he walked past one of his friends, a co-worker, and she asked: 'Hey Mark, what's my character doing in Marwencol?' and he replied bluntly: 'Oh, she's dead. The SS killed her.' And the look on this woman's face was priceless. I really minded my P's and Q's after that.''
When Malmberg asked Hogancamp after he had seen the film what he hoped people might take away from it, his response was simple: ''I hope audiences think it's OK to be themselves. That we can all be too quick to judge [others].''
■Marwencol screens at 8pm on May 10 at Speakeasy Cinema, The Playroom, rear 413 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.