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2010 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award--Cutting a Path of Understanding: Jeff Malmberg

By Joseph Jon Lanthier

Jeff Malmberg, recipient of the 2010 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award, may have only a single directorial credit, but his cinematic philosophy is far from inchoate. "Most of the documentaries I admire do the same thing," he says. "They take someone you would initially dismiss, and then blow up your preconceptions and make you realize that person is stronger in certain situations than even you would be. The documentaries I respond to are always those kinds. Marjoe is that way. Salesman is that way. Grey Gardens is that way. It's easy to forget that Salesman is a portrait; it's a really beautiful portrait of someone."

Malmberg's own beautiful portrait, Marwencol, is, like the work of the Maysles brothers, at times so aligned with its quirky subject's desultory expressionism that it seems like fiction. The film's title refers to a miniature, model World War II town populated by dolls, built and maintained by upstate New Yorker Mark Hogancamp after a savage assault left him penniless, amnesiac and lacking a suitable outlet for his frustration. Remarkably, he fashioned the 1/6th-scale villa as a conscious form of inexpensive therapy--each meticulously costumed Barbie and action figure represents a peer of Hogancamp's with which he can no longer interact due to crippling social anxieties and concerns over what he's forgotten of his former life.

Hogancamp continually processes the trauma he's endured by reinterpreting key memories within Marwencol's borders and photographing their still-life climaxes. His beating becomes a fierce gun battle between his stalwart plastic avatar and Nazi occupiers, while prior romantic rejections are rendered with tender wartime kisses and flourishes of black magic. Each entrancing snapshot is a fuzzy recollection, filtered through the 1940s-era conceit and re-enacted with realistically posed dolls, then captured with visually sensitive, yet untrained, technique. And one could argue that Hogancamp's immersion into this dream world implies a kind of escapism, but Malmberg piquantly presents Marwencol, and Hogancamp's photography, as a symbol of cavalier rebirth and budding confidence. While interviews with family and friends are used for contextual perspective, at the film's heart are scenes of uniquely intimate craftsmanship; we're strangely uplifted watching Hogancamp obsess over the architecture of Marwencol's buildings or the attire of its inhabitants.

Considering his own background, Malmberg now feels as though he'd been waiting his whole life to be confronted with Hogancamp's DIY triumph. He confesses an attraction, discovered at an early age, to dramatic scenarios influenced by genuine anguish, as well as character studies that offer shaggy underdogs an unprecedented pulpit. Growing up in Fremont, California, Malmberg frequented offbeat screenings at University of California, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, and remembers seeking out "weird movies in weird video stores... My dad showed me an old VHS of Aguirre, Wrath of God before Herzog was everyone's favorite filmmaker." While attending University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, however, he aspired to shoot fictional narratives; it wasn't until he found post-graduate work as an assistant editor that a passion for documentary began to sprout.

"I was lucky enough to work with some really amazing editors, like Angus Wall [whose credits include Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network], who really helped me see the art of editing and what it could be," Malmberg explains. "But it wasn't until I cut a feature called Red, White, Black and Blue for PBS that I really started to fall in love with the idea of editing and documentary." Exhilarated by the painstaking ponderousness and rhetorical authority provided by the editing booth, Malmberg sought out a nonfiction project that might enable him to "cut a path" of experience for audiences to travel upon. And while he planned to direct it from the start, he saw this as a necessary preparation for the post-production poetry to follow. "I think I'm always going to be an editor," Malmberg predicts with a ring of fatalism. "And documentary is the ultimate editing exercise."

This aphorism proved doubly true for a subject like the town of Marwencol, which inspires fascination both as an independent, off-kilter artistic statement and as a rich simulacrum of Hogencamp's unlikely recovery story. After seeing a provocative collection of Hogancamp's photos in Esopus magazine, Malmberg recalls being immediately and sympathetically aware of the potential. He flew to New York to research the project's feasibility and instantly recognized within Hogancamp's shy demeanor and dogged art ethic a kindred spirit. "I was getting back up off my feet from a relationship and trying to rebuild my life," Malmberg recalls. "And probably in some way that I couldn't articulate at the time, I was looking for examples of rebuilding lives. And here was this wild example of it. It just felt right."

Malmberg, who initially planned to shoot the film as a short over a single weekend, continues to navigate the depths of his friendship with Hogancamp. "I wound up working on Marwencol for about four years," the filmmaker states somewhat incredulously. But in observing the complexity of the finished product, the lengthy span of production time appears utterly crucial: Malmberg required it not only to achieve an intimate bond with Hogancamp but also to assemble the diverse raw materials he would use, finally, to carve shape into the singular story before him. Although mostly photographed on digital tape, Marwencol also seamlessly incorporates clips of creatively tweaked Super-8, stop-motion animation and other visual formats. "As an editor, I feel it's good to have gears," says Malmberg, commenting on this formal diversity. "When you meet Mark, he's constantly talking to you about various things, and I wanted the film to have that manic energy. But ultimately, the best gear that I had was Mark's photographs."

Malmberg's formidable gift as an editor is most apparent in his judicious use of Hogencamp's stirring stills, the displaying of which in New York galleries provides a tense, hesitant link between Marwencol and the outside world in the film's third act. Malmberg's editing honestly and lovingly contemplates the photography, and patiently uses its histrionic verisimilitude to remind us that intense struggle can facilitate stark beauty. But while Malmberg chose which pictures to place in the movie, and the pace at which they'd be shown, he leaves much for his audience to analyze. "I like the idea of floating through stuff," he says, noting Marwencol's peripatetic pace. "Mark's world is so strong that you can do that. I'm not the authority on Marwencol. I've done my homework, but I'm not gonna get up there and lecture."

Indeed, while Malmberg is the director of Marwencol and, more importantly, the editor, he's more than willing to share the duty of auteur with his subject, making the film a rare, generous auto-portrait of sorts. "A lot of times I'd feel like I was doing a behind-the-scenes featurette on Mark's movie," he notes, laughing. "I mean, it's a doc. You're making it up half the time. It's a gut thing. And Mark is a beautiful guy. You just gotta get out of his way. He's delivering it." The film ultimately succeeds so indelibly as a direct result of this generosity, and because of how synchronized its aesthetic is with Hogencamp's arrhythmic personality.

Most documentaries are composed like expository essays, yet Marwencol is an impressionistic travelogue through a town of dolls--and, naturally, through a tortured soul yearning and deserving to be understood. "That's a big doc lesson," Malmberg maintains. "If you only look close enough, there's real beauty there, and we need to be a little bit kinder when we see people."


Joseph Jon Lanthier is a cultural critic currently living in the San Francisco Bay area.