This post is likely to sound like the fictional director unfairly complaining about documentaries. It’s not meant to, but here goes anyway:
Do documentaries get more forgiveness when it comes to aesthetic choices? A fictional film with a great story is often slammed (by me) if it’s style, aesthetics, etc don’t add up. However, show me a documentary with a unique subject and story and I’ll turn a blind eye to many other elements.
Marwencol is the indie-darling documentary of 2010. I really liked the film. Director Jeff Malmberg crafts his film around the story of Mark Hogancamp. Mark was brutally beaten by five men outside of a bar and left with significant brain damage. Five years later Mark is still trying to re-learn much of life and cope with the violence that left him closer to a 38 year-old child than an adult. Part of Mark’s self-prescribed therapy is to build an elaborate city out of dolls and odds and ends called Marwencol. His attention to detail is astonishing. He names the characters after people he knows or knew. His own character within Marwencol mirrors Mark himself: he’s a recovering alcoholic, he’s brutally beaten by five men (SS officers in Marwencol), he lusts for women, and he’s a closeted cross-dresser. Fascinating stuff.
Malmberg makes the clear choice to avoid much talk of the crime itself. It’s in there, and is difficult to avoid, but there are few direct references to it, steering this away from a Thin Blue Line-type investigative documentary and more towards the personal discovery-documentary. Malmberg’s footage consists largely of interviews with Hogancamp and those that know him, but what really sets Marwencol apart from other docs is the way that both Hogancamp and Malmberg photograph the tiny city.
Clever perspective techniques make the figures feel fully integrated into Mark’s real world. There’s humor in Mark’s interpretation of the city, and Malmberg isn’t blind to this. He shoots small details – a doll toppling over in the wind, an ant made to appear huge – with the same wit. A beautiful stop-motion sequence shows us Marwencol in action as a jeep roars by in the foreground and a soldier and woman make out on the steps of a shop.
There’s tension in Marwencol, but strangely enough, it comes from a different source than we might expect upon hearing a summary or even after watching the first half. Midway through the film I found myself wanting more information on the men who beat Mark. What happened to them? Why did they do it? There’s a lone, and chilling, audio clip from one of the attackers that is very effective and serves to make the event more real. The tension in the film ultimately comes from Mark’s secret as a cross-dresser and Malmberg shoots these bits as one would frame a detective film – a brain-damaged Mark cannot figure out why he has so many pair of high heels, for example.
Because Mark was a cross-dresser before and after the attack, the focus is less on his ability to recover from injuries and re-learn, but more on his ability to be himself regardless of the attack or not. It’s interesting that in the end of the film, Mark’s biggest achievement and moment of personal growth – wearing high heels in public – has little directly to do with the traumatic incident. Sure, indirectly there’s a lot there (without the attack Mark wouldn’t have stopped drinking, wouldn’t have created Marwencol, wouldn’t go to NYC – where he wears the heels – for an art show, etc), but Malmberg takes care to make this a film as much about Mark’s personal tribulations as about his coping.
Back to my initial question. Are docs given more leeway than a fictional film from an aesthetic perspective? I ask this because I really disliked much of the style of Marwencol for the first 30 minutes. There’s a cheesy, After-Effects-y looking “film grain” on some of the footage. The sound at times seems to drop out to near dead silence. The cuts and fades to black are too abrupt and ill-timed. The camera (perhaps out of necessity) is frequently too handheld, even on insert shots.
Were this a fictional film with the same issues much of the audience would immediately dismiss it. So how much of a concern is production value in the documentary world? Shouldn’t those elements that are fixable and controllable be as scrutinized as in narrative filmmaking? Much of documentary must be excused of course – if I have one chance to get my shot and one chance only then I’m far less concerned with the position of the sun than if I’m on take seven. But my problem with Marwencol is that much of what I’ve mentioned, the camera notwithstanding, is actually post-production when the filmmaker(s) have no subject-related hurry.
Luckily Marwencol’s aesthetic becomes much smoother as the film progresses, with Malmberg relying more on the photographs and interviews than any “fancy” style to grab ahold of us off the bat. Ultimately the film really succeeds in its look at a life-saving city.