History and Challenges

Documentary drama has a long history, studded with some of the most famous names and films in the documentary pantheon. You could start anywhere, but you would have to include Harry Watt's North Sea, Humphrey Jennings's Fires Were Started, the work of Willard Van Dyke and Leo Hurwitz, and, more recently, Peter Watkins's Culloden and The War Game, Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, and Chris Rallings's films for the BBC. This body of work has, however, raised certain theoretical problems. Where is the center of truth in this form, and how believable or suspect is it? These are vital questions, as the basis of documentary is its relationship to truth. In docudrama, however, a whole new area seems to be opening up, an area in which fiction is presented as fact, as reality.

In spite of its problems, documentary drama has a tremendous appeal to serious filmmakers. Leslie Woodhead, the creator of some of the most interesting documentaries shown on English television, sees it as a form of last resort. "It's a way of doing things where ordinary documentary cannot cope — a way of telling a story that would be impossible by conventional documentary methods." What is the impossible story? For Woodhead, it has ranged from a story about a Soviet dissident imprisoned in a mental hospital to Strike, a film about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Woodhead's aim has been to re-create history as accurately as possible, and his means — summed up by David Boulton, one of his scriptwriters — are very instructive:

No invented characters. No invented names. No dramatic devices owing more to the writer's (or director's) creative imagination than to the impeccable record of what actually happened. For us, the dramatized documentary is an exercise in journalism, not dramatic art.

Woodhead's A Subject of Struggle was about an elderly Chinese lady put on trial by the Red Guard at the height of the Cultural Revolution. In 1972, when the film was made, the nature of the revolution was a tremendous puzzle, and no film of any duration had come out of China about it. Woodhead obtained the trial transcript, talked to sinologists about it, did further research, and then used the transcripts as the basis of a docu-drama. In the case of Soviet dissident General Grigorenko, the basis of the film was provided by Grigorenko's detailed diaries, which he had managed to smuggle out of prison.

One of the most famous docudramas of the mid-1960s was Cathy Come Home, about the plight of the homeless in England. It was shown three times on the BBC and did a great deal to alleviate the plight of those without shelter or lodging. Scriptwriter Jeremy Sandford came to the subject through the experiences of a close friend who was about to be evicted from lodgings and lose her children. Sandford did extensive background research but put his final script in the form of a drama rather than straight documentary. I was curious about this decision, and when I met Sandford in London, I asked him why he chose drama and actors over straight documentary. Sandford replied:

Real people are often inarticulate when disaster hits them. There can be flashes of emotion in a live documentary, but these flashes cannot be sustained throughout a film. An actor with an actual script avoids that problem. Also, at this time, cameras were not allowed in the homes for the homeless. Even had I been able to get in and make a television documentary, I wouldn't have been able to do justice to the emotional reality of the people living there. Instead I saw it all in the form of a play—a situation anyone with a social conscience just had to write about. (Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971])

Sandford has done a number of other docudramas, including Edna: The Inebriate Woman, so I pushed him a bit further on justifying the form.

The justification for it must be, as I have said, that the events portrayed are inaccessible to true documentary treatment, either because they are in the past, or because they lie in some area of secrecy or inarticulacy, such as that to shoot them as straight documentary will destroy the very thing one is trying to show.

Both Sandford and Woodhead provide excellent arguments for the docudrama form. Once the choice is made, the main problems are (1) the form the piece should take to keep it as close as possible to the truth and (2) how to inform the audience about the real nature of what is on the screen.

Film Making

Film Making

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