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Before you see Welcome to Marwen, stream the documentary about the true story behind it

The 2010 film Marwencol tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, who turned to photography — and dolls — after a violent attack.

One of Mark Hogencamp’s scenes in Marwencol.
One of Mark Hogencamp’s scenes in Marwencol.
The Cinema Guild
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

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The premise: Marwencol is a 2010 documentary about the extraordinary artist and photographer Mark Hogancamp, who constructs intimate fantasy worlds with deeply personal narratives in his backyard. (It’s also the basis for the Steve Carell film Welcome to Marwen, opening in theaters December 21.)

What it’s about: Mark Hogancamp, who lives in Kingston, New York, was attacked by five men outside a bar one night; he spent nine days in a coma and another 40 days in the hospital, recovering. Ultimately, his injuries left him with brain damage and amnesia about his life before the attack.

Unable to afford therapy (because Medicaid stopped paying for it), Hogancamp developed his own elaborate form of it: Creating an elaborate fantasy world in his own backyard, with the help of dolls. He calls the town he builds “Marwencol” (a portmanteau of pieces of his name, his ex-wife’s name, and the name of a woman he’s in love with), sets it in World War II-era Belgium, and constructs an ongoing narrative about the residents of the town. The dolls who live in Marwencol represent people Mark knows in real life — friends, waitresses at the bar where he works — as well as Mark himself, whose doll is a brave soldier.

Director Jeff Malmberg puts Hogancamp front and center in Marwencol, letting him tell his own story and sensitively allowing him to reveal some of the more intimate details of his life at his own pace (his love for wearing women’s high heels, for instance). Hogancamp also photographs the scenes he creates, with an almost preternatural sense for how to pose them to represent real life. While the documentary is being made, his photographs are discovered almost by happenstance, by a friend with connections to the art world — and Hogancamp finds himself with an exhibition at a gallery in Greenwich Village.

Marwencol certainly had the potential to be exploitative, given its subject matter. But Malmberg hangs back, allowing the character of Hogancamp — rather than any contrivance or “plot” — to power the film. And it works. Marwencol brings you into Hogancamp’s world as a guest, and as his story slowly unfolds, you come to understand what these stories really mean to him and to his mental health. It’s a quiet, extraordinary film, and especially worth revisiting now that Robert Zemeckis’s fictionalized version, Welcome to Marwen, is being released.

Critical consensus: Marwencol has a score of 83 on Metacritic. At the Boston Globe, Ty Burr writes that it’s “a strange and very beautiful documentary about the gray area between obsession and art — about the compulsive need to create something when the world leaves you with nothing.”

Where to watch: Marwencol is streaming on Kanopy, which is available to public library card holders at thousands of libraries across the country (you can check for your local library here). It is also available to digitally rent on iTunes.

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