Docudrama – Dean Wilcox
March 4, 2005
Docudramas are difficult things to produce well. A straight documentary has the benefit of having an extreme to adhere to: only fact, as accurate and complete as it is practical to make it. A docudrama has other masters to which it must attend; in addition to conveying factual information, the events should be packaged in such a way as to make it both engaging to watch in a way that a raw list of facts cannot be, and to paint a context in which the events can occur. The question arises: why produce a docudrama at all? Docudramas tend to follow stories of the human spirit, whether it is elevated, oppressed, taxed, cut short or otherwise. Stories of human struggle make better docudramas than documentaries because of the personal treatment a docudrama can give to a topic. This freedom to frame an issue so as to make it more accessible to the public is the greatest asset and the greatest liability of a docudrama.
There exists a fine line between selecting the events neccisary to outline an issue effectively and selecting them specifically to support a certain point of view. This line even changes depending on who one is and where one is standing. Biased reports can be difficult to argue against or even spot because they draw on the same reality as the fair and balanced ones. The line a docudrama walks hinges on the framing, and there are several angles to go about it.
Many docudramas make a point of being so deliberately unbiased, despite dramatizing an issue with emotion, that it can be frustrating for the audience. In the face of horrifying events, a seemingly uncaring monolith of a play makes atrocities seem that much worse. As the source of our information, the audience comes to think of the play as a sort of authority or authority figure and longs for the one entity in the room with a little control of the situation to do something about it, even though everyone is aware the script is written, the lines are memorized and the cues are set. This lack of emotion effectively charges and audience member with an amplified sense indignation about the issue; the authority of the play temporarily replaces the authority of an uncaring world. An audience feels as though, in the theater, they are the only one who cares about the topic being presented and hopefully transfers that fervor to their actions after the play ends.
The Investigation is one such play. The subject matter is about as appalling as it comes and the playwright could not have a more hands-off approach to it. Throughout the play, audiences are frustrated by the deluge of technical information that clogs the true intention of the story. The trial is kept as sterile as possible; this is a nearly impossible balancing act since the intensity and sheer volume of human emotion surrounding the story scream through the statistics but are rarely acknowledged. The playwrights intention, of course, is not to present a litany of figures and dates to his patrons; The Investigation relies more on what is not said playing with audiences’ expectations to make its point.
At the other end of the spectrum, a docudrama might immerse its target in a world that is such an undistilled ideal of an idea or feeling, one cannot help but absorb the feeling of the work through osmosis. Facts can take a back seat in this sort of work, but that tends to be alright; this variety of touchy-feely docudrama isn’t so much concerned with conveying a specific series of events, though it might for a vehicle, as it is painting a floor-to-ceiling picture of an intangible feeling. The docudrama is structured similarly to a straight play by generally telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. The difference comes in the treatment. Characters will often address the audience directly as the character, or not, or from the future in a moment of retrospection that helps put the “standard” action of the play in the context the playwright uses to convey the intangible emotion. By presenting a well-chosen story and qualifying it with