A guy crouches in his backyard, playing with dolls.

A pugnacious, gruff New Yorker who wouldn’t seem out of place on “The Sopranos,” Mark Hogancamp was viciously beaten by some thugs outside a bar in 2000. His face and memory shattered, with inadequate health insurance jettisoning him from mental and physical therapy way too soon, Hogancamp found himself cut off from his past and facing poverty and a shaky future.

So he built a whole world — one you can enter during the screening of the documentary “Marwencol” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at Space Gallery. Worth noting: the film has earned a 7.9 rating on IMDb.

Hogancamp’s Marwencol is a 1/6th-scale model, WWII-era Belgian village where vintage G.I. Joe and Barbie models — painted, posed and clothed in dynamically-detailed scenes — act out an evolving narrative. As the documentary about Hogancamp’s story progresses, we realize his village creation and his life are similar in fascinating and surprising ways. Marwencol is a nonviolent sanctuary where soldiers of all nations (and the town’s indigenous sexy lady doll contingent) live in rowdy harmony.

At least until the SS show up …

As Hogancamp’s and Marwencol’s twin histories are gradually revealed, troubling elements of each begin to crop up, psychological mysteries skillfully unveiled by director Jeff Malmberg.

We meet Hogancamp’s friends, his coworkers, his mom (amusingly depicted tending bar by a “Dr. No” Pussy Galore figure), and several women whose relationships with Hogancamp become intriguingly troubling storylines in Marwencol’s turbulent history. Unlike Hollywood versions of this story (like the reprehensible J.J. Abrams-penned “Regarding Henry”), Hogancamp’s traumatic brain injury did not serve to solve all his problems by turning him into a simple-minded sweetie; he was a complicated character before, and he remains one now.

Some documentaries are built around an irresistible story (2010’s “Catfish” is another), and Mark Hogancamp’s world certainly qualifies. Malmberg’s treatment of his subject is especially skillful and sensitive, tickling the audience with clues and hints, all the while showing obvious affection and respect for Hogancamp.

Like the similarly thrilling documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal,” “Marwencol’s” portrait of an “outsider artist” with (possible) dark secrets is moving, unnerving and, ultimately, inspirational.

With a final, metatextual twist that made my head swim.


Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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