Documentary drama is a term that may refer to one of several different ways of handling documentary material. In one sense, the word "drama" indicates the exciting nature of the material or subject matter, but the word also may refer to a rehearsed enactment that takes place in front of a camera. Sometimes the term makes reference to the embellishment of the core subject material of a documentary in order to compensate for the dryness of the subject matter. In other cases, the term refers to specific, true and perhaps historic events, reenacted for the camera.
While documentary drama is a popular form of film and television entertainment, it is also quite controversial. Film and television program creators are attracted to documentary drama because of the way dramatic effect can be added to realism to make a boring topic come alive for the audience. By injecting a sense of drama into an unexciting topic, or by using sympathetic characters, the audience's imagination is stimulated and engaged. The documentary style can be applied to fictional content, lending an air of realism to an imagined scenario. A reenactment of an historical event can lend immediacy to something that happened long ago, that was formerly just a marginal footnote in a history book.
But critics of documentary drama claim that the techniques employed in this genre produce a dishonest representation of events. Viewers may be tricked into believing untruths invented to generate popular interest. Facts and accuracy may be sacrificed on the altar of theater. Despite these criticisms, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1966, referred to documentary drama as the "theater of fact."
Some say documentary drama has its roots in the British movement of documentary filmmaking. This movement started with events that had been researched or witnessed, and reconstructed them as theater. In the 1970s, British television brought these productions to viewers by way of Granada's Dramatized Documentary Department. In the Granada documentaries section, headed by Leslie Woodhead, incidents were reconstructed with the help of various types of evidence, for instance court transcripts, tape recordings and eye-witness interviews. Granada aired The Man Who Wouldn't Keep Quiet in 1970. This documentary drama was based on a large body of written documentation which detailed the imprisonment of a Russian dissident in a mental institution. Other shows produced by Granada during this decade and the one that followed drew more on imagination than evidence; however, a sense of realism was built into the script by the use of certain real events and how they could be linked to real people.
Despite British claims of inventing the documentary drama as a genre, there were earlier incarnations of this form of theater. In the beginning of the 1960s in Germany, for instance, plays began to be produced that were based upon the recent historical events uppermost on the minds of most Germans: the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet, this was only the revival of a form of theater that had existed in Russia during the Russian Revolution, reappeared with the help of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator in Germany during the 1920s, and showed up again in the form of the Living Newspaper as part of The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in the United States during the 1930s. In each case, the producers were armed with an agenda and used the theater to agitate for social change.
Augusto Boal exploited his political standing as city councilor in Rio de Janeiro to create his Forum Theatre method where documentary drama was used to represent factual events so as to promote social reform.
Rosemary Neill has written about Verbatim Theater, which originated in the 1960s. This form of theater uses the real words of the people involved in an event to help lend realism to reenactments of regional events. Neill stated that this form of theater helped give a voice to marginalized communities.
Documentary drama is a form of theater that will remain popular with the people in spite of its many critics. It is an effective use of the theater that can make subject matter come alive, engage an audience or promote a point of view. However, when watching a documentary drama, it is a good idea to remember that the drama onstage is a mixture of fact and fiction.