The term Docudrama is derived from the word document (c.1450) meaning "teaching, instruction," which came from the same Middle French word that describes a ‘lesson or written evidence.’ The Latin’s started all of this with documentum meaning an example, proof,or lesson" which later stood for an "official written instrument" Documentum came from docere as in to show or teach. A docere denoted "something written that provides proof or evidence" and first appeared 1727. Document as a verb meaning "to support by documentary evidence" is from 1711. It wasn’t until 1930 that documentary was initially used to describe a "film based on actual events" and it came from the French film documentarie in 1924. Docudrama or a semi-fictionalized film of a historical event presented in the style of a documentary. was first coined 1961.

A docudrama is a play, movie or television story in which factual events from either modern or historical times are combined with the imagination of the screenwriter ‘s or playwright’s to produce an entertaining adaptation. An innovation of the small screen the docudrama came about when British Broadcasting Company commissioned Ken Russell to do film essays on biopics of artists Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss; poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and dancer Isadora Duncan. The film essays were released between 1965 and1970. The producer endeavored to convey the essence of the person’s character and work rather than just the facts of their lives. Opponents say they generalize or warp the events or the people caught up in them. Supporters of the field say imaginative artists have the right to combine history and realism as the foundation for their illusory representations.

Since the time of Shakespeare's historical plays, practically all docudramas have presented assertive and opinionated perspectives. Nearly all film and television dramas electrify the limelight of history by bringing partisan depictions of events and people. All are controversial in some manner. Docudrama is a close cousin to the "non-fiction novel." This expression was first used to describe the genre books like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song where the novelist uses the techniques of fiction to tell a story.

Sources:

Docu-drama:
www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/5/messages/99.html

Online Etymology:
www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=d&p=14

Writer's Market: Writer's Encyclopedia:
www.writersmarket.com/wmns/encyclopedia/d.asp

Docudramas have been used to portray historical events in the genre of a contemporary documentary. Rebels and Redcoats, for example, covers the American War of Independence with famous figures like Samuel Adams being interviewed.

But they have been more effective storytelling events - especially events involving hypothetical disasters or other nasty things that could happen in the future. Using ordinary elements of news reporting to describe a dramatic event makes a story seem closer to us, and thus a lot more scary. Well used cliched techniques include:

  • The use of faux news flashes.
  • Fly on the wall coverage of Mister and Mrs Typical living normally before a cataclysm, and struggling to survive in the aftermath. Somehow actors invariably fail to be convincing when imitating people living ordinary lives. May or may not involve romance, but certainly some messy human emotion unnecessarily clouds the plot.
  • Passionless voiceovers by the narrator describing carnage and destruction (By now, over half the exposed population of Stoke-on-Trent would have succumbed to gangrene...)
  • Courier font text on the screen, telling us exactly when and where a scene takes place ( WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM 1:24 AM ). Often the text is accompanied with typewriting sounds, even if none of us has heard an electric typewriter in the last 15 years.

    Orson Welles 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds was the first docudrama, and was famous for terrifying an audience who never could have guessed that science fiction can be presented as factual events. Other docudramas worth remembering are:

  • The War Game: Britain after a nuclear war .
  • Threads: Britain after another nuclear war.
  • Smallpox 2002: A terrorist causes a global smallpox pandemic.
  • Horizon: Dirty Bomb: A radiological weapon is blown up in Trafalgar Square.
  • War With America: The European Union and NAFTA become military adversaries.
  • The Day Britain Stopped: A rail strike and a few road accidents causes Britain's traffic to go into gridlock.

    Tellingly, the British like making docudramas.

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