What’s Up, Docs?

Documentaries On DVDJust because a documentary is well-received doesn’t mean you will get a chance to see it—at least in theaters. That’s why the DVD market has proved to be so important in the world of factual films.

Consider this year’s Oscar nominees. The winner was Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s sharp, fascinating dissection of the economic crisis. As of this writing, it has taken in $4 million and will likely make more, post-Oscars. But after that, only Exit Through the Gift Shop, centering on mysterious guerilla artist Banksy and Restrepo, a powerful look at American soldiers in one of the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, drew audiences in theaters, taking in $3.3 million and $1.5 million respectively.  GasLand and Waste Land, the other nominees, were relegated to mostly festival screenings throughout the country. Meanwhile, Waiting for “Superman,” Academy Award-winner Davis Guggenheim’s look at the problems of American education, was easily the biggest doc moneymaker of 2010, taking in about $7 million, but surprisingly passed over for an Oscar nomination.

Each month, several worthy docs are issued, many of which were bypassed by America’s theaters (except for maybe New York or L.A. or another major city or two).

Consider two recent docs, both well worth your time. Orgasm Inc., coming to DVD late this spring, is not a porn movie, although it involves a business specializing in female pleasure.  In this case, the business is Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company whose principals really want to be the first to come out with a female version of Viagra for female sexual dysfunction. The film tells us that 43% of women suffer from the problem, although the healthcare industry doesn’t recognize it. At the same time, ads for medicine to help male sexual dysfunction are plentiful on TV, on radio and in magazines.

Orgasm Inc. director Liz Canner chronicles her own experiences regarding this problem in the high-stakes world of Big (and not-so Big) Pharma. She gets a job editing erotic videos for Vivus, and at the same time, the company provides her access to chronicle their development of the drug. While Vivus and its competitors’ aim seems true—at least at first—Canner eventually discovers that there is no altruism when millions are at stake. Shot for the most part with a handheld camera on digital video and featuring some whimsical (but obviously non-Pixar level) computer animation, the film’s rawness adds to its immediacy, and makes it even more powerful in its revelations regarding Canner’s employers and their industry.

Marwencol has something to do with sex, too, although you wouldn’t guess it after watching most of the film.

The movie, which netted just shy of $100,000 in limited engagements, tells of Mark Hogencamp, a man in his late thirties, who received serious physical and mental injuries as well as severe memory loss from a nasty bar fight in his hometown of Kingston, New York. After covering his counseling for a few months, Hogencamp’s health insurance provider cut off his mental help, and forced him to find a unique way to deal with his problems. What he chose is, frankly, amazing. Outside of his trailer home, Hogencamp built a small-scale World War II-era town, dubbed it “Marwencol,” and populated it with dolls that act out various scenarios of his conception.

There are Allied soldiers, SS officers, town residents and even cat-fighting women. Many have their own detailed backstories concocted by Hogencamp and several are alter-egos of people in his life, be it a married neighbor he’s attracted to, his boss at the restaurant where he works part-time, or himself. Hogencamp also deals with his emotions by staging bloody fights, having the SS officers and soldiers share some beers on occasion, and plotting out dramatic situations among the tiny associates who appear all-too-real to him.

Hogencamp took photos on a regular basis of the fictional but incredibly detailed dramas of the doll residents of Marwencol. Eventually, the photos made their way to an art journal that leads to an opportunity for Hogencamp to reveal himself and his “art” in a New York City gallery showing. What prompted the vicious beating of Hogencamp is not revealed until towards the film’s end, and it’s a stunner.

Thanks to fine, subtle work by first-time filmmaker Jeff Malmberg, who shot the film in digital video and Super 8mm, viewers will feel like a fly on the wall when they enter the fascinating world Hogenberg has created.  Marwencol is not only a unique character study, but a film that raises questions about the health care system and the nature of art and obsession.

It is well worth seeking out just to say you’ve met Mark Hogencamp, up-close and personal.