Documentary Drama

When I was a kid growing up in England, I would occasionally visit the British Museum. In the archaeology section, one granite carving fascinated me above all others. This amazing animal had the bearded head of a man, the body of a bull, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a lion. What I didn't know then, and only realized much later, was that I was looking at the symbolic representation of the fact-fiction film. Like my British Museum sculpture, docudrama is a most peculiar animal.

Fact-fiction, reality-based drama, or docudrama, as I prefer to call it, has become one of the most popular forms of television to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s. This hybrid form has embraced single films ranging from Skokie, Ambush in Waco, The Atlanta Child Murders, Strange Justice (the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Story), and Pirates of Silicon Valley to miniseries such as Sinatra, Blind Ambition, and Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Docudramas have also invaded the feature industry with films such as Hurricane, A Perfect Storm, Schindler's List, Malcolm X, and In the Name of the Father. Because docudrama covers such a broad spectrum of dramatic forms, it helps to see it as divided into two strands, or two totally separate areas.

Biography and entertainment. This category probably makes up 90 percent of the docudramas we see in the cinema and on TV. It runs from Michael Collins and Remember the Titans to Erin Brockovich and from Dorothy Dandridge to 0. J. Simpson, Life with Judy Garland, and the

Frank Sinatra and Jackson family TV series. It also includes all the current titillating murders of the week.

These films are generally categorized by a desire for the highest audience ratings, an emphasis on entertainment values, and a rather loose regard for the truth. When they are made for U.S. television networks, they tend to fall under the supervision of the drama department rather than news and documentary jurisdiction. (For a fuller explanation of docu-drama forms, see Alan Rosenthal, Writing Docudrama [Boston: Focal Press, 1994].)

Reconstructive investigations. Though highly honored, this is a much smaller category and includes pieces such as Death of a Princess, Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, Tailspin, Hostages, Who Bombed Birmingham, And the Band Played On, and Citizen Cohn.

What we are looking at here is a very serious body of work, much closer to journalism than conventional drama. Though the works use dramatic forms, characters, and dialogue, the motivating force is that of the restless inquirer and the investigatory reporter. These films want to uncover and reveal for the public good—and not just in the name of higher ratings. Their highest goals are to present powerful, enthralling drama that nevertheless also gets as close to the truth as possible. This seems to me the most socially important side of docudrama. It's what gives the genre its moral imperative. It is also the side of docudrama I want to focus on in this chapter.

Film Making

Film Making

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