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March 14, 2022, 2:37 p.m.

Celebrating the life and work of Brent Renaud, the filmmaker and Nieman Fellow killed in Ukraine

“We’re bombarded these days with judgment and analysis of everything. What we’re trying to do is give the audience a look into cultures or worlds that they don’t have access to, and give some empathy to that story.”

Sunday was a difficult day here at the Nieman Foundation. We learned that our friend Brent Renaud, a 2019 Nieman Fellow, had been shot and killed by Russian forces in Ukraine. Brent was there working on a documentary for Time about the global refugee crisis, telling the stories of those chased from their homes by Russian violence, only to fall prey to it himself. (His Nieman classmate, Juan Arredondo, was with him and was also shot; he is now recovering.)

You can read any of the many stories that have been written about Brent’s death — The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS, CNN, AP, Variety, local media in his native Arkansas, and more — and you should. But here I thought I would focus on his work rather than the circumstances of his death. Because if there’s even a single thing about Sunday that makes any sense, it’s that Brent Renaud died telling the stories of people caught up in some of humanity’s darkest situations. That’s what Brent — with his brother and filmmaking partner Craig Renaud — did all his career.

At war, in war

Some of Brent’s earliest credits, as a cinematographer and editor, came on documentaries about America’s wars after 9/11, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, he and Craig embedded with a unit of the Arkansas National Guard for their tour in Iraq, turning it into a 10-part series called “Off to War.” It was “the first time in television history that a single unit of soldiers, and their families, have been followed throughout a deployment to war.” It earned them a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary from the Directors Guild of America, as well as top awards from the Overseas Press Club of America, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the International Documentary Association.

After those first films, the Renauds kept coming back to the veterans of those wars, making two more about their lives after conflict: “Taking the Hill,” about returning vets (including now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth) who ran for Congress in 2006, and “Warrior Champions: From Baghdad to Beijing,” about four severely injured soldiers training for the 2008 Paralympic Games.

Brent’s brother Craig told the Times Sunday that “a little over a decade ago, Craig started a family, and since then, Brent has done the filming in combat zones.”

Turmoil and migration

If there’s one place — besides their native Arkansas — where Brent and Craig have focused the most editorial attention, it’s Haiti. A few weeks before the devastating January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people in Haiti, Brent and Craig were there for The New York Times to report on a different crisis: the long history of environmental abuse that has left the country 97% deforested. This video begins and ends with brief interviews with Brent by the Times’ Jane Bornemeier.

The Renauds returned multiple times for more reporting. This Times video was on the end of a moratorium that had prevented Haitians living in the United States convicted of crimes — including misdemeanors — from being deported back there. “With no food, no water, no light,” one such man says, “I don’t really know how to survive. I can’t even speak the language very well.”

They also made two short documentaries for the Times looking back at how Haitians have survived the first post-earthquake year. The second, a heartbreaking piece focused on Haiti’s children, won an Edward R. Murrow Award and a duPont-Columbia Award.

Here’s an interview from 2012 about some of their work in Haiti. Brent’s final film about Haiti — titled “Haiti Hospital” — is currently in post-production.

Brent and Craig also made some remarkable films about migrants and migration, in Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere. One, “Vanguard: Arming the Mexican Cartels,” won them another duPont-Columbia Award.

Young people at risk

After their time in Iraq, the Renauds’ next big project was a jarring, narration-free documentary for HBO called “Dope Sick Love” — their first major engagement with the topic of drugs. For 18 months, they followed two drug-addicted couples — Matt and Tracy, Sebastian and Michelle — as they navigate living on the streets of New York. It is harsh and raw and a hard watch, but it’s also potent stuff. You can watch the trailer here; “Dope Sick Love” earned an Emmy nomination for Best Documentary. Here are a couple clips.

They returned to the subject of drugs in 2017, when they made “Meth Storm” for HBO. It looked at the impact on rural Arkansas of the flood of cheap methamphetamine from Mexico that came after federal authorities shut down much of its domestic manufacture.

In an interview about the doc, Brent said something that could apply to all of his work:

“We’re bombarded these days with judgment and analysis of everything,” observed Brent. “What we’re trying to do is give the audience a look into cultures or worlds that they don’t have access to,” he explained, “and give some empathy to that story.”

“We don’t really consider ourselves activist filmmakers,” he mused. “We want to provide context to people to make them understand these issues. There’s a million ways you can make a difference in your community, but for us, we want to tell the stories.”

The brothers’ 2016 doc “Shelter,” made for Vice News, looks at Covenant House, a New Orleans shelter that houses and supports some of “the most damaged population of youth that exists in society today.” It was produced by the actor Michael K. Williams, who we also lost recently and tragically.

Some of the most lauded projects the Renauds collaborated on were about American public schools. For HBO they made “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later” to mark anniversary of desegregation in their home state — and what has and has not followed in the years since.

And they won a prestigious Peabody Award for “Last Chance High,” on a Chicago school that serves children with severe behavioral problems.

Chicago’s Moses Montefiore Academy — “Last Chance High” — serves students with severe emotional disorders, who have been expelled (frequently more than once) from the city’s other public schools. Last Chance High’s first episode can be so overwhelming that we want to run for the doors, as the cameras show us — without much explanation — the disruptive behavior and disrespect for their teachers these students display on a daily basis. The school’s faculty and administrators spend so much time trying to maintain order that it is hard to imagine much teaching goes on. Across subsequent episodes, producers Brent and Craig Renaud take us deeper and deeper into this world. We get to know these students and the emotional carnage of their lives; we get to know their parents, some in jail, some indifferent, but some struggling to help their sons and daughters make something good of their lives. The school’s teachers and mentors burn out and break down, but some go the extra mile to provide these students life-changing experiences or simply a shoulder to cry on. For its uncompromising look at school violence and its compassionate depiction of this educational community, Last Chance High receives a Peabody Award.

You can see a clip in their Peabody acceptance speech here. (The video says that’s Craig speaking at the microphone, but it’s actually Brent.)

Some light in the dark

If you’ve made it this far, I’d understand if you need a break; Brent covered some very dark subject matter in his career. But it wasn’t all dark.

He spent last fall in Florida, chronicling the University of Central Florida’s football team for a documentary series on ESPN+. In 2019, he and Craig made a documentary on Arkansas visual artists for the state’s public broadcaster.

And I’ll close with this video, made for the Times in 2009. There’s no international crisis to be seen. Instead, Brent and Craig are covering the Arkansas State Queen beauty pageant and the battle to be named Ms. Senior Arkansas — a competition that included their 92-year-old grandmother, Virginia Miller. “This is the happiest we’ve seen our grandmother in a long time,” Brent narrates.

On stage, Virginia talks about her career as a social worker working with unwed mothers — a group that faced plenty of social opprobrium in the South in that era, but not from her: “Honestly, I only met in my work one mother that I couldn’t see some good in.” Did she have any advice for young people today? “Just laugh, and love your neighbors — and people who are not your neighbors. Just love people.”

Virginia passed away in 2012, but I suspect she’d be very proud to know hers was a family where empathy runs across generations.

POSTED     March 14, 2022, 2:37 p.m.
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