David Grubin is a director, writer, producer, and cinematographer who has produced over 100 films, ranging across history, art, poetry, and science, winning every award in the field of documentary television, including two Alfred I. Dupont awards, three George Foster Peabody prizes, five Writers Guild prizes, and ten Emmys.
His biographies for the PBS series American Experience - Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided; LBJ; Truman; TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt; and FDR - have set the standard for television biography. His five-part series for PBS - Healing And The Mind with Bill Moyers - has won many awards, and the companion book, for which he was executive editor, rose to number one on The New York Times Best Sellers list, remaining on the list for 32 weeks. His award-winning independent feature film Downtown Express has been screened at festivals in America and abroad. Grubin has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, has been a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, and is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Hamilton College.
A former chairman of the board of directors of The Film Forum, he is currently a member of the Society of American Historians, and sits on the board at Poets House. Grubin has taught documentary film producing in Columbia University's Graduate Film Program, and has lectured on filmmaking across the country.
He has recently completed Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard, telling the story of Tamara Lanier, an African American woman determined to force Harvard University to cede possession of daguerreotypes of her great-great-great grandfather, an enslaved man named Renty. The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by a Harvard biologist to provide evidence in support of his poisonous theory of the superiority of the white race. The images remain emblematic of America’s failure to acknowledge the cruelty of slavery, the racist science that supported it and the white supremacy that continues to infect our society today. The film can be seen on Amazon, iTunes/Apple TV, Google Play, Microsoft Xbox, Vimeo, VUDU, YouTube, Amazon Home Video, and through your cable provider's VOD offerings.
For me, documentary filmmaking is a process of discovery, an opportunity to wander along some unmarked shore with my mind open and my senses alert. I love to be surprised. I begin each project with a recognition of how little I know, and cultivate a state of radical ignorance.
Tolerance for the disquieting limbo of uncertainty in the midst of chaos is at the center of my creative process. I’ve always done the initial research on my films myself because I can’t explain to anyone else what I’m looking for. It’s only later – when I start to write the script or I’m in the editing room, trying to make sense of a shapeless jumble of information – that I begin to understand where I might be going. Making documentaries requires comfort with disorder – being at ease with what seems like an infinite number of brute, meaningless facts and knowing that only the empathetic imagination can infuse them with meaning.
It is the empathetic imagination that feels its way into the thicket of facts to find hidden in the welter of possibilities the shape of a story. I have no argument with films that are essays, laying out ideas in an orderly, point by point fashion. But I like to tell stories – because stories do not simplify complex personalities and events; because stories embody values without preaching them; because in stories, we learn how ideas feel; because in stories there are no answers, only more questions, pointing viewers, I hope, toward insights of their own.