docudrama is a fact-based representation of real events. It may
represent contemporary social issues--the "facts-torn-from-today's-headlines"
approach--or it may deal with older historical events. U.S. television
examples include Brian's Song (1971), the biography of Brian
Piccolo who played football for the Chicago Bears but died young
from cancer, Roots (1977), the history of a slave and his
family, Roe vs. Wade (1989), the history of the Supreme Court
decision legalizing abortion, Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of
Jessica McClure (1989,) the rescue of an eighteen-month-old
baby from a well, and three versions of the Amy Fisher and Joey
Buttafuoco affair (1993). The sources of the form derive from 19th-
and 20th-century journalism, movies, and radio.
In most cases, a docudrama is produced in the manner of realist
theater or film. Thus, events are portrayed by actors in front of
an invisible "fourth wall"; shooting techniques obey the conventions
of mainstream film or television (i.e., establishing shots with
shot/reverse shots for dialogue, lighting constructed in a verisimilar
manner, non-anachronistic mise-en-scene); no voice-over narrator
comments on the actions once the events begin; and little or no
documentary footage is interspersed. Unlike mainstream drama, however,
the docudrama does make claims to provide a fairly accurate interpretation
of real historical events. In other words, it is a non-fictional
the docudrama is a mode of representation that, as its name reflects,
combines categories usually perceived as separate: documentary and
drama. This transgression, however, is not an actual one. Texts
that claim to represent the real may be created out of various sorts
of documents such as photographs, interviews, tape recordings of
sounds, printed words, drawings, and narrators who attempt to explain
what happened. Non-fictional texts may also use actors to re-enact
history. In all cases, the real is being represented and is thus
never equal to the reality it represents. Some people even point
out that having any filmic recording of an event is a "text" with
the same status as these other types of documents: film footage
is necessarily taken from a particular angle and thus is an incomplete
representation of an event.
docudrama should be distinguished from fictional dramas which make
use of reality as historical context but do not claim that the primary
plot line is representing events that have actually occurred. An
example of such a fictional use of history would be an episode in
Murphy Brown in which Brown insists on questioning President
Bush at a press conference and is then thrown out. The use of the
real person Bush as backdrop to a fictional plot creates a "reality
effect" for the fictional program but would not qualify the episode
to be a docudrama.
do not have to conform to the above aesthetic conventions. An early
U.S. example of a series devoted to re-enacting past events is You
Are There. You Are There derived from the radio program CBS
Is There which ran from 1947 through 1950. On television it appeared
from February 1953 through October 1957. You Are There violated
the traditional taboo of avoiding anachronisms by having contemporary
television reporters interview historical figures about the events
in which they were supposed to have been participating, for example,
during the conquest of Mexico.
The You Are There form for a docudrama, however, is very
unusual. Most docudramas employ standard dramatic formulas from
mainstream film and television and apply them wholesale to representing
history. These conventions include a goal-oriented protagonist with
clear motivations; a small number of central characters (two to
three) with more stereotyping for secondary characters; causes that
are generally ascribed to personal sources rather than structural
ones (psychological traumas rather than institutional dynamics);
a dramatic structure geared to the length of the program (a two-hour
movie might have the normal "seven-act" structure of the made-for-television
movie); and an intensification of emotional ploys.
desire for emotional engagement by the viewers (a feature valuable
for maintaining the audience through commercials) produces an inflection
of the docudrama into several traditional genres. In particular,
docudramas may appeal to affects of suspense, terror, or tears of
happiness or sadness. These affects are generated by emplotments
of generic formulas such as the detective or thriller genre, the
horror genre. Although the outcome was known in advance, Every-body's
Baby operates in the thriller mode: how will Baby Jessica be
saved? Judicial dramas such as Roe vs. Wade or murder dramas
such as Murder in Mississippi (the death of three civil rights'
workers) use suspense as a central affective device. Examples of
terror are docudramas of murders or attempted murders by family
members or loved ones or of larger disasters such as the Chernobyl
meltdown or plane crashes.
of the most favored effects, however, is tears, produced through
melodramatic structures. Some critics point out that docudramas
tend to treat the "issue-of-the-week," and that such a concern for
topical issues also produces an interest in social problems that
might have melodramatic resolutions. Docudramas have treated incest,
missing children, wife or child abuse, teenage suicide, alcoholism
and drug addiction, adultery, AIDs-related deaths, eating disorders,
and other "diseases-of-the week." The highly successful Brian's
Song which won five Emmys and a Peabody is an excellent example
of this subtype of docudrama. Its open sentimentality and use of
male-buddy conventions along with the treatment of an interracial
friendship uses the event of an early death by cancer to promote
images of universal brotherhood. The Burning Bed (1984) or
The Karen Carpenter Story (1989) wages war against pressures
producing, respectively, domestic violence or anorexia nervosa.
Such implicitly or explicitly socially-conscious programs, however,
raise the problem of interpretation. Indeed, docudramas, like other
methods of representing reality, are subject to controversy regarding
their offer of historical information through story-telling. Although
historians now recognize how common it is to explain history through
dramatic narratives, historians are still concerned about what effects
particular types of dramatic narratives may have on viewers. Debates
about docudramas (or related forms such as "reality TV") include
Eleanor and Franklin: The White House
reservation is related to "dramatic license." In order to create
a drama that adheres to the conventions of mainstream story-telling
(particularly a sensible chain of events, a clear motivation for
character behavior, and a moral resolution), writers may claim they
need to exercise what they call dramatic license--the creation of
materials not established as historical fact or even the violation
of known facts. Such distortions include created dialogues among
characters, expressions of internal thoughts, meetings of people
that never happened, events reduced to two or three days that actually
occurred over weeks, and so forth. Critics point out that it is
the conventions of mainstream drama that compel such violations
of history while writers of docudramas counter that they never truly
distort the historical record. Critics reply that the dramatic mode
chosen already distorts history which cannot always be conveniently
pushed into a linear chain of events or explained by individual
reservation connected to the first is the concern that spectators
may be unable to distinguish between known facts and speculation.
This argument does not propose that viewers are not sufficiently
critical but that the docudrama may not adequately mark out distinctions
between established facts and hypotheses, and, even if the docudrama
does mark the differences, studies of human memory suggest that
viewers may be unable to perceive the distinctions while viewing
the program or remember the distinctions later.
third reservation focuses on the tendency towards simplification.
Critics point out that docudramas tend toward hagiography or demonization
in order to compress the historical material into a brief drama.
Additionally, complex social problems may be personalized so that
complicated problems are "domesticated." Adding phone numbers to
call to find help for a social problem may be good but may also
suggest sufficient solutions to the social problem are already in
Outside the United States many of these problems have been addressed
in different, but related ways, and while the term docudrama is
often used in a generic fashion, it may be applied to a range of
forms. In the United Kingdom, for example, Cathy Come Home
(1966), stands as one of the earliest and strongest explorations
of the problem of homelessness. Created by writer Jeremy Sandford,
producer Tony Garnett, and director Ken Loach, this program refuses
the more conventional structures of dramatic narrative, inserting
strong "documentary" style photography into the presentation and
using "Cathy's" own voice as narrator-analyst for the harsh social
situation in which she finds herself. Another voice, however, presents
factual information in the form of statistics and other information
related to the central topic of the piece. Cathy Come Home
has been described as a "documentary-drama," a term that a term
that seeks to emphasise the serious and factual qualities of the
show against the more conventional docudrama.
In Australia versions of docudrama have often been used to explore
social and national history. Productions such as Anzacs, Gallipoli,
and Cowra Outbreak have focused on Australian participation
in both World Wars and in some views are crucial texts in the construction
of national identity.
Canada, critics have applied the docudrama designation to a broader
range of production styles, including works such as The Valour
and the Horror, which combined documentary exploration with
dramatized sequences. This program led to an ongoing controversy
over the nature of the "real," and the "true." Because the presentation
challenged received notions of Canadian involvement in World War
II (notions themselves constructed from various experiences, memories,
and records), the conflict took on an especially public nature.
So, too, did arguments surrounding The Boys of St. Vincent,
which dealt with child molestation in a church-run orphanage. The
dramatization in this case was more complete, but clearly paralleled
a case that was still in court at the time of production and airing.
all these examples suggest is, on the one hand, that docudrama is
a particularly useful form for television, whether for advertising
profit, the exploration of social issues, the construction of identity
and history, or some combination of these ends. On the other hand,
the varied examples point to an ongoing aspect of television's status
as a medium that both constructs narratives specifically defined
as "fiction" and also purports to somehow record or report "reality."
You Are There very early mixed "news," history, and fiction,
categories often, and uncritically, considered distinct and separate.
The mixture, the blurred boundaries among the conventions linked
to these forms of expression and communication, and the public discussions
caused by those blurrings and mixings, remain central to any full
understanding of the practices and the roles of television in contemporary
John. "Progressive Television and Documentary Drama. In, Bennett,
Tony, et al., editors. Popular Film and Television. London:
British Film Institute, 1981.
Andrew, et al. Drama-Documentary. London: British Film Institute,
John E. American History/American Television: Interpreting the
Video Past. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Elaine. The Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events.
Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Come Home; Power
Without Glory; Six
Wives of Henry VIII; Valour
and the Horror