If you study art, you know that even within a single genre there are usually many subgenres. Underneath the umbrella of painting you will find watercolor, acrylic art, and calligraphy, just to name a few. The same is true of film genres like documentary. Documentaries aim to document true life events, but the way in which they go about it will determine the subgenre they belong to. Docudrama is one such subgenre. If you're wondering what makes a docudrama a docudrama, read on.
Many people get docudramas confused with mockumentaries, assuming the drama portion of the name means there's an element of fiction in the film. But this isn't quite accurate. Docudramas do have an element of artificiality to them, but this is because they attempt to chronicle true life events, like the Autism treatment of a youngster or a plane crash, by re-enacting them after the fact. The result is an artificial documentation of a true to life event.
Docudramas are used most often in television, especially on networks like Discovery and History Television, as a way of depicting events it was not possible to capture on film in real time, either because there were no cameras present or because cameras hadn't yet been invented. TV docudramas aren't usually used to rehash a famous athlete's physiotherapy in Scarborough. Rather, they tend to focus on medical mysteries, airplane and nautical disasters, and famous historical events. Popular docudrama based shows include Mayday, Operation Repo, Dogfights, and Seconds from Disaster. Many TV movies are filmed this way.
The docudrama style of filmmaking is also used quite often in feature films, but the resulting movies are usually labeled at biopics or simply "based on a true story" rather than as docudramas, as the word "docudrama" tends to convey a certain amount of tawdriness, which is no doubt the result of there being so many TV movies about spurned women in danger from husbands or boyfriends who wonder: "is she cheating on me?" Some famous feature docudramas include Erin Brockovich, The King's Speech, and United 93.
There are several ways to go about making a docudrama. The first is to have the people who were actually involved in the class action lawsuit in Canada recreate the scene for the cameras. The second is to use firsthand accounts to recreate the scene using actors, who are often able to more realistically fake the emotions and actions experienced by a person in the moment. The third it to use a combination of after-the-fact interviews with participants and actor-driven recreations, intercutting the two for dramatic effect. This third method is the most popular for TV shows, while films tend to use only actors to avoid breaking the fourth wall.
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