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Docudrama is a film genre which is found primarily, but not exclusively, on television. Brian's Song (1970)—the story of the tragic death of football player Brian Piccolo—was the first notable U.S. example. The success of Brian's Song proved to the television networks that the made-for-television, reality-based telefilm could be both a critical and popular success. However, the docudrama has been a controversial form in North America because of its apparently cavalier mixture of truth and fiction, drama and documentary—a case of blurred boundaries which unsettles some viewers and critics. The genre has had at least a dozen names and several uncomplimentary epithets applied to it: drama-documentary, dramatized documentary, dramadoc, faction, infotainment, reconstruction, historical drama, biographical drama, historical romance, thesis drama, problem play, and "based-on-fact."

For many of those who do not like the form, the television docudrama is a cheap replacement for the more distinguished Hollywood social-issue picture. But docudramas have been extremely popular with audiences (and hence advertisers), and cheaper to make than theatrical feature films. Because the majority of them are based on some well-known recent event, they require much less in the way of promotion since the audience already knows at least part of the story. The turnaround time (the time between a public event and the film based on it) for such films has become incredibly brief; the most infamous example was the filming of the story about the violent deaths of several FBI agents and members of a religious cult in Waco, Texas, while those tragic events were still unfolding (In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, 1993).

Until very recently, the docudrama has generally been considered a hybrid form, caught somewhere between documentary and drama, often doing justice to neither. Film and television critics have tried to define its conventions with mixed success since the seventies. Andrew Goodwin and Paul Kerr, authors of the BFI Drama-Documentary Dossier, even claim that it is impossible to define the genre, arguing that such failure is a result of "the break up of consensual views of social reality" in a postmodern world. For these critics and others the mixture of fact and fiction leads to the creation of a "hyperreality" where audiences can no longer make the distinction between truth and fiction—with the result that history, as told by the media, tends to become reality itself. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) is often cited as a prime example since the only information that many people around the world have about the Holocaust comes from the film, known for its fictionalizing of "the truth."

Critic Derek Paget has argued that the docudrama has been around long enough to be considered a genre in itself with well established conventions. He traces the U.S. history of the form from early documentary-like television anthology programs like Armstrong Circle Theatre or Kraft Television Theatre, through a second phase of made-for-TV movies like Brian's Song or Roots (1977), and finally to a more controversial type of "trauma drama" which has been largely influenced by tabloid television with stories based upon well-known scandals such as the Amy Fischer "Long Island Lolita" attempted murder, Amy Fisher: My Story (1992) and The Amy Fisher Story (1993), or the O.J. Simpson murder trial, The O.J. Simpson Story and The Trial of O.J. Simpson (both 1995).

Critical quibbling aside, the docudrama is one of the most popular and lucrative genres in North America, perhaps because it blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction and in the process draws attention to the media's manipulation of "fact." One need only think of the battles fought in the United States over docudramas like Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) or Nixon (1995) to see the heat which docudrama has generated. The docudrama has become a culturally important form which is the site of political battles over the nature of "truth," "reality," and the tabloidization of everyday life.

—Jeannette Sloniowski

Further Reading:

Breitbart, Eric. "From the Panorama to the Docudrama: Notes on the Visualization of History." Radical History Review. Vol. 25, 1981, 115-25.

Brode, Douglas. "Video Verite: Defining the Docudrama." Television Quarterly. Vol. 20, No. 4, 1984, 7-21.

Carveth, Rod. "Amy Fisher and the Ethics of 'Headline';Docudramas." Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 21, No. 3, 1993.

Corner, John. The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996.

Edgerton, Gary. "High Concept Small Screen: Reperceiving the Industrial and Stylistic Origins of the American Made-for-TV Movie." Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 19, No. 3, 1991, 114-27.

Gomery, Douglas. "Brian's Song: Television, Hollywood, and the Evolution of the Movie Made for Television." In American History, American Television: Interpreting the Video Past, edited by John O'Connor. New York, Ungar, 1983.

Goodwin, Andrew, Paul Kerr, and Ian Macdonald, editors. BFI Dossier #19: Drama-Documentary. London, BFI, 1983.

Hartley, John. Tele-ology: Studies in Television. London, Routledge, 1992.

Hoffer, Thomas, and Richard Alan Nelson. "The Evolution of Docudrama on American Television Networks: A Content Analysis, 1966-1978." Southern Speech Communication Journal. Vol. 45, Winter 1980, 149-63.

Kerr, Paul. "F for Fake? Friction over Faction." In Understanding Television, edited by Andrew Goodwin and Gary Whannel. London, Routledge, 1990.

Margulies, Lee. "Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Docu-Drama Symposium." Emmy: The Magazine of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Summer 1979, D2-D40.

Paget, Derek. No Other Way to Tell It: Dramadoc/Documentary Drama on Television. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1998.

Petley, Julian. "Fact Plus Fiction Equals Friction." Media, Culture and Society. Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996, 11-25.

Rapping, Elaine. The Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Rosenthal, Allen, editor. Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.