Docudrama: the real (HI)story çiçek Coşkun outline

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    1. Definitions to Docudrama

    2. Antecedents to Docudrama


    1. Metonyms and Metaphors

      1. Casting

      2. Naming and “Compositing”

2.1.3 Captions The Voice-Over/Narrator Date and Place Captions Sound/Music Captioning




1.1 Definitions to Docudrama

It has been nearly seven1 decades since John Grierson first applied the term “documentary” to movies. Still, the definition of the term remains a vexed and controversial issue, not just among film theorists but also among people who make and watch documentaries (Eitzen, 1995: 81). Besides the complexity and difficulty of the definition of documentaries, it is also difficult to define genres of the issue. By the time going, new genres and techniques were added into the documentary genre. This development led to documentary filmmakers into mixing these genres and techniques in documentaries.

One of the most common and important a documentary genre is docudrama. Definition of the docudrama term is as difficult as the definition of documentary term.

One of the earliest definitions of docudrama was given by Edgar E. Willis in the early 1950s. Willis based his definition more on content than on form when he called it ‘a program presenting information or exploring an issue in a dramatic fashion, with story emphasis usually on the social significance of the problem,’ (Willis, 1951: 101 in Bartlett Musburger, 1984: 10)2.

Moreover, according to Kaiser (1980: 42 in Bartlett Musburger, 1984: 10)3, docudrama is the “dramatization of actual events using actors and actresses as opposed to a pure documentary, which uses real people and events.” According to this definition, docudrama is a combination of real events and fiction.

Another definition of the term is that, “docudrama (also docu-drama, drama-documentary, drama-doc or docu-fiction) is a type of drama (usually a film, television show, or play) that combines elements of documentary and drama. It may consist entirely of actors performing recreations of documented events, or (in the case of film and television docudramas) may combine that with contemporaneous footage of the events themselves,” (http://encyclopedia.

Various studies were made to solve this controversy of definition. One of them is defining “drama-documentary” and “docudrama” separately.

According to Ogunleye (2005: 480),

The drama documentary simulates reality, and is used to analyze current events and issues. Drama documentaries are based on fictional events, which are derived from in depth research, resulting in believable scenarios….On the other hand, the docudrama is usually based on historical events, thereby providing an analysis of past proceedings (Free Dictionary) The docudrama is the marriage of two unlikely forms-the documentary and drama. The documentary is a record of factual events. It is the story of ‘something’ or the process or the process of ‘something’. On the other hand, drama is the imitation of life- a contrived story. The docudrama can therefore be described as a hybrid genre.

Actually, docudrama uses various forms, but the most common type of docudrama makes an historical event or era the focus of the production (Duren, 2005: 233). But, differently from historical epics, docudrama puts the historical event itself to the primary centerpiece of the plot; it weaves dramatic elements within the incident without taking any emphasis away from the event (Duren, 2005: 234).

Under the light of all these definitions, we can briefly say that, “the 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,” (The Museum of Broadcast Communications).

The important point to pay attention is the various categories of docudrama. According to Hoffer and Nelson (1980: 162-163 in Barlett Musburger, 1984:13)4 there are nine categories of docudrama:

  1. Monologues: Events or personal aspects in the lives of actual persons based on documentary evidence, performed by one person.

  2. Historical: Recreated, non-contemporary, non-religious events with emphasis clearly on the events and not personalities.

  3. Biographical: Programs which portray events in the lives of actual persons but with emphasis on the personality of the subject.

  4. Contemporary: Distinguished from types 2 and 3 because of topical or contemporary relevance, but also dealing with actual persons and events.

  5. Religious: Historical religious figures and themes drawn from religious writings.

  6. Documentarized Fiction: Based on actual occurrences, but characters are fictionalized or composite.

  7. Aberrations: Speculations about what might have been.

  8. Partial Docudrama: Partially recreated events in the lives of actual persons, usually centering on historical events.

  9. Fictionalized Documentary: Based on actual characters but occurrences are fictionalized or composite.

Actually, attempts at defining docudrama more specifically have been difficult, a problem common in the arts where definition lags behind practice. In this case, where controversy so often has attended its reception, definitions have been devised according to the particular bent of the critic (Borenstein, 1999: 6).

At that point, it would be relevant to state main criticisms to docudrama. “Major criticism of docudrama has been based in the belief that they often distort history, advance prejudices and concepts in reckless disregard of facts, and the writers may invent and rearrange characters, events, or time and present the truth,” (Barlett Musburger, 1984:14).

Besides these, we can state three challenges for docudrama:

The first challenge is to sort and select meaningful events, to collect and combine this data and finally, to derive a meaning from the sequences of events.

The second challenge is to find a meaningful way of presenting this event data to the user. To these end three alternative foci for event presentation can be provided: the focus may be put on the interaction with folders and documents, present something more abstract like the story of a project, or present the interaction between team members.

The third challenge is to present the project’s history and progress of work in an entertaining way which captures the users’ attention and conveys complex information fast and effectively (Schafer, L.; Pankoke-Babatz, U.; Prinz, W.; Fatah gen. Schieck, A; Oldroyd, A., 2003: 46).
Under the light of all these, it would be useful to examine antecedents to docudrama.

    1. Antecedents to Docudrama

Antecedents of docudrama can be found in various art genres such as from theatre to literature, from motion pictures to early docudramas.

When we look at theatre, “according to theatre historians, all Greek tragedies of the influential golden age of the Greek theatre are based on history or myth, although each playwright rendered his own interpretation,” (Bartlett Musburger, 1984: 61). This style continued also in Shakespeare’s theatre. Shakespeare also used historical records as a source for many of his plays, including but not only, his historical dramas (Borenstein, 1999: 38). This means that playing real events as theatre is as old as the history of theatre. Using this early technique of docudrama continued in the whole history of theatre. “Following World War 2, the German theatre developed the ‘theatre of fact’, which also was known as ‘docudrama’. By the 1960s this genre used actual events, generally recent, to explore a concern for guilt and responsibility in public affairs and morality,” (Bartlett Musburger, 1984: 62).

When it comes to literature, we see that there is always a fiction or a refracting value rather than a reflecting one. There is always a degree of distortion and this distortion is sought in literature since it is the unique signature of the author (Bartlett Musburger, 1984: 66).

Motion picture on the other hand, has evolved within different genres such as documentary, drama, newsreel etc. Thus, development of motion pictures also developed the docudrama. We can date this multisided relation of motion pictures and docudrama to L’umiere brothers’ films. They were shooting real events when they started to use cinematograph. Furthermore, Georges Méliés first lengthy film L’Affaire Dreyfus in 1898 was a mixture of drama and reality. It was a restating of the famous trial of Lieutenant Dreyfus (Borenstein, 1999: 42).

Early documentaries also are the antecedents of docudrama. Although the definition of the documentary genre’s itself was unclear during the early years, we can still claim that these early documentaries became the sources for the development of docudrama genre since they were reinterpreting the reality. For instance, Flaherty’s 1922 dated famous documentary Nanook of the North includes some interpretations of real life and there was also fiction in the film. Actually, Flaherty interpreted Nanook’s5 real life through the use of the camera. Besides, Flaherty also reconstructed scenes inside the igloo since the family’s real igloo was too small and dark to shooting film in it (Brummitt, 2007: 10).

All these interpretations and reconstructions of the reality in all these art genres led to the development of docudrama as a useful and preferable documentary genre. But we can say that the precursor of docudrama is the historical drama. “All the same, the docudrama improves on the historical drama through its use of actuality presented in recordings of events and locales where possible, and closeness to original stories… This form (docudrama) arose because of the desire of filmmakers during the post-war period in Europe to utilize the documentary format developed during the war in the commercial arena,” (Ogunleye, 2005: 482).


2.1 Metonyms and Metaphors

According to Borenstein, “the degree to which a particular docudrama combines the codes and conventions of documentary and drama goes a long way to describing the expectation of how seriously the docudrama is to be received; and also how controversial it is likely to be,” (Borenstein, 1999: 116). Thus, there are some established codes, methods and conventions that docudrama genre is produced within. These established categories led to filmmakers some choices while shooting the film. These choices also cause to forming of some “common” techniques or ways of production for docudrama genre. It will not be wrong to say that these common techniques led to the separation of the genre from other genres. Moreover, these common techniques also can solve the difficulty of definition since they form characteristics of docudrama.

2.1.1 Casting

One of the most important devices of docudrama is to cast actors. In most docudramas there is a long list of cast. Filmmakers generally choose actors similar in appearance to real person. If the appearance of the person is unknown, this similarity of appearance is not important. The important thing is that real persons are “played” by “actors” while real events are “played” in docudramas.

2.1.2 Naming and “Compositing”

When it comes to naming and compositing, it is seen that characters are appeared with their names in the real life. This point is one of the most important differentions of docudrama from drama or fiction. Characters can be renamed and interpreted in dramas and fictions. In the three documentary selected for the present study, all characters are appeared in their real names.

2.1.3 Captions

One of the key conventions of docudrama is the use of captions. Captions are a form of direct address, a device, like the interview, directed at the cameras that in general are associated with documentary films (Borenstein, 1999: 131). They can be presented as voice-overs and/or narrators, date and place captions and sound and music captioning. The Voice-Over/Narrator

Use of voice-overs and/or narrators is one of the most common methods of documentary. This method is also the point that separates docudrama from drama and fiction films. In dramas and fiction films narration or voice over are not used. Moreover, witnesses of the events are used to make a connection with reality in docudramas. But we do not see such a method in dramas or fiction films. Date and Place Captions

When it comes to second main technique, we can say that date and place captions are used both in documentaries and dramas. Thus, although this method remains unclear to define docudrama, we can still make a distinction. In documentaries and docudramas, date and place captions are used for referring to real dates and places. But in dramas and fictions films date and place captions may not be used for referring to real dates and places. They might be used for referring to fictional dates and places. If they used for referring real dates and places, still we can claim that they are not docudramas since they do not include other methods and techniques of docudramas. Sound/Music Captioning

When it comes to sound/music captioning, we see that this issue separates docudrama from documentary. Although there is an effective music use in documentary, music is used for dramatic elements in docudrama as it is used in dramas and fiction films. In docudrama, music is a part of the story and is designed according to structure of the film.


We see that, docudrama is a complex genre to define. Although its first definition was made in 1950s, its antecedents are in theatre, literature, early documentaries and early motion pictures. Thus, we can say that it is a combination of all these genres.

Moreover, it can also be said that there are various sub-docudrama versions. These are Monologues, Historical Docudramas, Biographical Docudramas, Contemporary Docudramas, Religious Docudramas, Documentarized Fiction, Aberrations, Partial Docudrama and Fictionalized Documentary.

Finally, we can claim that definition of docudrama is possible with examining of techniques and methods of docudrama. Although there are various methods to docudrama, we can state most important three as casting, naming and composition, and captions.


Bartlett Musburger, Robert (1984), An Analysis of the American Television Docudrama: 1966-1982, The Florida State University, College of Communication, PhD Thesis
Brummitt, Heather (2007), Documentary Innovations: Themes and Styles that Evolved and Emerged Over the Past 100 years, University of Kansas, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Master Thesis
Borenstein, Bonnie T. (1999), The Rhetoric of Television Docudrama: a Reading of “Roe vs. Wade”, New York University School of Education, PhD Thesis

Duren, Brad Lee (2005), “Lights, Camera, History”: Media Culture and The Kent State Shootings, Graduate Collage of the Oklahoma State University, PhD Thesis

Eitzen, Dirk (1995), When Is a Documentary?: Documentary as a Mode of Reception, Cinema Journal, Vol. 35, No.1, pp: 81-102
Free Dictionary (2008), Docudrama,
Ogunleye, Foluke (2005), Television Docudrama as Alternative Records of History, History in Africa, Vol. 32, pp: 479-484
Schafer, L.; Pankoke-Babatz, U.; Prinz, W.; Fatah gen. Schieck, A; Oldroyd, A. (2003), DocuDrama, Virtual Reality, Vol. 7, pp: 43-53
The Museum of Broadcast Communications, Docudrama,

1 It has been nearly “eight” decades by the date this paper is written

2 Willis, Edgar E. (1951), “Foundations in Broadcasting”, New York: Oxford University Press

3 Kaiser, Ronald (1980), “Problems of Docudrama-Legal and Otherwise”, European Broadcast Union Review, Vol.31, No.4

4 Hoffer, Thomas W. and Nelson, Richard Alan (1980), “Evolution of Docudrama on American Television Networks: A Content Analysis, 1966-1978”, The Southern Speech Communication Journal, Vol. 45, pp: 149-163

5 Even Nanook was not the name of the character. His name was “Allakariallak” and Flaherty gave a new name to him in the film although he was appearing as himself.

6 Titles of the techniques are modified from Borenstein, 1999.

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