Marwencol, The Arbor and Life in Day – Sheffield Doc/Fest draws to a close

Written by Ann McCluskey on . Posted in Festivals

Marwencol

Sheffield Doc/Fest wound up on Sunday night after 5 full-on days. Capturing a flavour of the event overall did mean sacrificing time spent in screenings, but I caught two films up for a Special Jury Award; Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (premiered at London Film Festival in October) and Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol (premiering in the UK at Sheffield).

Neither won, although Barnard’s film did get the Innovation Award also on offer. Being a fusion of doc and drama exploring the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, it was fascinating and effective in its lip-synch acting device. But it didn’t have me seeping tears during the Q and A as Malmberg’s Marwencol did.

Every frame of this beautiful film locks you into the delicate, inspired and utterly novel world of its protagonist Mark Hogencamp, a man who was beaten so badly outside a bar in Kingston, New York state, the resulting brain damage largely knocked out memories of his life prior to the attack.

After scant rehabilitation – the reality of US health insurance - Mark builds a miniature Belgian town, ‘Marwencol’, which becomes the site of a WW2 fantasy-scape populated by Action Men and Barbies. He creates and photographs endless scenarios, including SS sieges and Barbie cat-fights in the local bar (called Hogencamp’s of course). The dolls here represent Mark and the people in his life, including his attorney and the married neighbour he has a crush on, Colleen, whose name he utters in sighs. Meanwhile, his mother is a James Bond Pussy Galore doll, and it is this suspension of reality and its simultaneous connection to the narrative of Mark’s new life that makes his story a fabulous balance of creativity as therapy and the sublimely cockeyed. This Action Man- scaled world isn’t surreal and it isn’t ironic; instead we’re witnessing play as a life-affirming force. And it is the compassion the film brings, with humour and a deep respect for Mark, resurfacing into the ‘real’ world disabled and managing PTSD, that tilts Marwencol into the realm of the rather special.

Rather than extraordinary lives, it is the very ordinary that director Kevin Macdonald is seeking for his Life in a Day project, inspired by the 1930s Mass Observation social research organisation. However, this time it’s the entire planet, not just Britain he’s hoping to get on board. As a crowd-sourced movie it confounded expectations around user-generated content on a couple of levels. A million dollars isn’t exactly budget documentary, but it was all needed. With footage from 197 countries, it turned out to be the Byzantine admin and huge translation costs which were the main budget-munchers.

And the quantities of everything involved are eye-watering: 81,000 video clips making up 4,500 hours of footage shot in 60 different frame rates. Tackling this were 24 ratings deciders who whittled down the work pain passed on to Macdonald. He saw a couple of hundred hours of footage (only the 4 or 5 star stuff) but Joe Walker, his editor, saw it all. It’s a web project all right, but not the hand-knitted, cottage industry endeavour You-tube - sponsored by LG to host the project - is normally used to.

They also concede content was pretty US-centric as that’s where they got most clips from. Even spending £45,000 on 470 cameras for poorer countries still didn’t get round the problem of people not conceptually getting the film-yourself narrative.

"Us westerners might think we’re endlessly fascinating, but not all cultures share the west’s capacity for online narcissism."

In the end there were 550 chosen co-contributors and each will get a co-directing credit with Macdonald – conceding he was more of a curator on this one. With issues of copyright and release not 100% ironed-out, any profits will probably go to charity. In that collaborative spirit, Macdonald not only returns to his first-love, documentary, which he’d been missing, but brings some democracy to a phenomenon of collaboration. Whether the other 80,450 people, whose clips didn’t get used, agree is another matter.

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