The documentarian Brent Renaud, who along with his brother Craig defined nonfiction filmmaking for a generation of Arkansans, was shot and killed outside Kyiv on March 13 while reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The first American journalist to die covering the conflict, he left an inimitable legacy in his home state and far beyond.
In the days after his death was reported, those who knew Renaud remembered the soft-spoken 50-year-old as a fearless, ego-free storyteller who captured the struggles of discarded people in some of the hardest places in the world to cover. To many in American journalism, the Renaud brothers, like the Maysles brothers decades before them, were a singular pair in documentary filmmaking, quiet giants whose skill, drive and personal warmth made admirers and friends out of everyone whose careers they touched.
“Isn’t it incredible to think that the best documentary filmmaker came out of Little Rock?” said Christof Putzel, a correspondent and producer who worked with Renaud for 15 years. “Brent fought his way out into the world and told the most important stories of our time. There’s just no question — if Brent was on it, it was going to be a stronger story than any that had come before. That’s the tragedy. This is what we’ve lost. We lost our ace.”
Details of his death are still spare. News broke early Sunday that he had been shot and killed, apparently by Russian forces, as he passed a checkpoint with a documentary filmmaker named Juan Arredondo, on their way to film refugees. Time released a statement saying Renaud was on assignment for a Time Studios project about the global refugee crisis.
A photo circulated of an old New York Times press credential he was wearing, held beneath plastic and a PEACEKEEPER badge, showed Renaud’s particulars: hazel eyes, 5-foot-6, all of 140 pounds. For a man so unassuming in person, his death ricocheted around the globe in a blink.
Jake Sullivan, the top national security advisor to President Joe Biden, called the killing “a shocking and horrifying event” during a Sunday appearance on CNN. On Monday afternoon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a letter of condolence to Renaud’s family, praising the filmmaker’s bravery. It read, in closing: “May Brent’s life, service and sacrifice inspire generations of people all around the world to stand up in the fight for the forces of light against forces of darkness.”
Grandiose as it might sound, that sentiment does capture, in part, what Brent Renaud was known for. He specialized in work that represented — and aimed to protect — vulnerable people who had no platform of their own.
Dave Rummel, formerly a senior producer at the New York Times, where the Renauds were frequent contributors, knew the brothers as exceedingly patient, willing to venture to impossible places and spend the needed time there to gain people’s trust.
“They really knew where to look and where to focus,” Rummel said. “They were extremely hardworking, never complained. They didn’t always work for a lot of money, but story was everything for them.”
The Renauds’ peers recognized their work with top awards in the field. Their 2005 Discovery series “Off to War,” which accompanied National Guard call-ups from small-town Arkansas to war in Iraq, won awards from the Overseas Press Club and from the International Documentary Association. The Renauds won two duPont-Columbia Awards: for a New York Times short doc “Surviving the Earthquake,” about the long recovery of children who lost limbs in the 2010 Haiti earthquake; and for “Arming the Mexican Cartels,” which tracked American rifles into the veritable war zone that was northern Mexico a decade ago. They also won a Peabody Award for a Vice series, “Last Chance High,” about a Chicago high school for students with severe emotional disorders.
“If you wanted to binge-watch Brent’s work for the past 25 years, your jaw would be open the entire time,” said Putzel, who worked with Renaud in Mexico, Chicago, Iraq, Egypt, New York and Arkansas, as well as on the podcast “American Jihadhi,” which Renaud helped to script and voice. “You would be laughing and crying and feel things inside that you’d never felt before. That was every single one of them.”
Jason Gillen was a lifelong friend of Renaud’s, beginning in second grade at Jefferson Elementary in Little Rock. They grew up playing soccer and basketball, swimming in the Cammack Village pool and later dipping their toes into the burgeoning Little Rock independent music scene with trips to DMZ. While Renaud’s choice of filmmaking as a career surprised Gillen, he said he knew Renaud would be successful. “Anything he wanted to do, he could do it.” And even from a young age, he was unflappable. “He was always cool, always calm,” Gillen said.
As adults, Gillen and Renaud were out of touch for a long stretch, but had reunited in recent years, in part due to their mutual love of Arkansas Razorbacks sports. “He was a huge Hogs fan, especially basketball,” Gillen said.
A 1990 Hall High graduate who went on to Southern Methodist University in Dallas for his undergraduate degree, to Columbia University for his master of arts degree and later to Harvard as a 2019 Neiman fellow, Renaud remained forever a son of Little Rock. He maintained a home and a studio there, and was among the co-founders of the Little Rock Film Festival, which in its run from 2007 to 2015 brought countless filmmakers to town, lifting the trajectory of the craft in Arkansas.
Among the early festival staffers was Levi Agee, now the director of production for Arkansas PBS, overseeing a department that makes documentaries. He arrived at the festival barely out of his teens, from the no-Blockbuster hamlet of Sardis, Arkansas. Like others in a small cadre of early volunteers, he had no avenues to follow his film obsession other than the scene the Renauds helped to create and nurture.
“They legitimized the film festival to people from California and New York,” Agee said. “That’s why we got all these big films over the career of the festival. The Renaud brothers had so much clout and integrity that I don’t think can ever be re-created.”
Gabe Gentry, a filmmaker who now works for Winrock International, was another film festival volunteer whose life changed in the Renauds’ orbit. He got a call from Craig in 2014: Brent was going to cover the ISIS invasion of Iraq and needed an editor and second camera. Four days later, at 2 a.m. local time, Gentry landed in Erbil, Iraq, where he saw Brent waiting for him. They had sped only a few hundred yards from the airport when they were stopped by a group of men with Kalashnikov rifles approaching their vehicle. Brent immediately put him at ease: This is normal. They’re going to ask you to step out. They’re going to check your gear.
In the month they were on the ground together, shooting and editing documentary shorts for Al Jazeera America, Gentry said, Renaud remained imperturbable.
“The consistent calm he had, I was in total awe of,” Gentry said. “Whether he was looking across a field and seeing an ISIS flag or in a hotel giving notes on an edit, his voice and body language were consistent, just unshakable.”
Getting close to stories — dangerously close, in many instances — was a hallmark of Brent Renaud’s work. In recent years his brother, now married with a son, traveled less with him into the field. Brent charged forward.
Close calls were inevitable. In a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine, Brent Renaud described some of his early near misses — traveling in southern Mexico and Guatemala and miscalculating the dangers of his trip: “Long story short, a soldier held a 9mm pistol to my head while another attempted to dangle me off the side of an ancient pyramid.” Yet the accumulated years of experience, he said, helped to blunt the inevitable risks. “It’s a game of percentages,” he continued. “And even in the most dangerous places on earth your chances of survival are really high, and if you have a little extra experience with negotiating roadblocks, negotiating with warlords, and knowing where to stand when things get hairy, you really can do the job fairly safely. If we did not believe that we wouldn’t do it.”
Renaud’s obsession to push as close to a subject as humanly possible was not, his friends said, borne of any sense of thrill-seeking. Rather, it was how he could tell the story of people who were cast into those dangers through little to no choice of their own. They remembered him as a person of uncommonly serene, reserved humanity, who could read a room in a heartbeat and whose austere interview style always drove toward hard-to-reach truths.
He struck his colleagues as distinctly Southern in that way. He didn’t waste a word, a cut, or a breath. For such a prolific storyteller, in harrowing situations, he never gave the impression of being in a hurry.
Jeff Newton, a producer who for 10 years worked with Renaud in war zones, saw the best of him on a trip to Iraq. ISIS was using crude drones to drop bombs around the compound where the men stayed, and at one point, as Renaud followed a wounded child to an ambulance in the parking lot, a mortar exploded close enough to him to knock him off his feet. He was back out the next day, maneuvering as close as he could get to the front lines. He took over the shoot when Newton injured his back, and he was on the streets filming as snipers took aim at civilians who had to run alongside armored personnel carriers for protection as they fled Mosul.
“He shot that and never once complained about the fact that he was in harm’s way,” Newton said. “He was always trying to make sure he got the shot. He gave a fuck about all those people. He gave a fuck about people who were refugees, that no one would give a shit about.
“Brent would’ve hated the fact that we’re fawning over his incredible career. He would’ve said thank you for the lens, now please turn it back around on the people he was shooting. They’re just people trying not to get killed. He would say turn that lens back on them and please don’t stop filming those people. Don’t forget about the reason he did what he did.”
James Chin met Brent Renaud in 1995. The filmmaker was in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, for work, and Chin was his translator. They became friends immediately and grew so close that when Chin got a visa and a chance to become a U.S. citizen in 2000, Renaud flew to Cambodia to make it happen.
“I got the visa and called him. All I had was $40. I didn’t have money to buy the plane ticket,” Chin said. “He said, ‘How long will you stay?’ I say, ‘No, I come here to live.’ He said, ‘OK, wait there for me, I will fly over there to buy you a ticket.’ He flew from New York to Cambodia.”
For the next two years, Chin lived with Renaud in his Manhattan apartment, adjusting to life in a new country and saving money to live independently with his two children, who soon joined him in the States.
Today, Chin is an independent truck driver living in Virginia. Chin and Renaud stayed close as brothers, talking or texting every couple of days. Renaud would stop at Chin’s house whenever he drove from New York to Arkansas, always requesting Chin’s special fried ginger and chicken. Soon after COVID-19 hit, Renaud climbed in the cab of Chin’s truck and the two went on the road together for about a month so Renaud could document a nation nearly paralyzed in the new pandemic.
The two were friends through plenty of Renaud’s adventures, but this time, Chin said he worried more. He asked Renaud not to go to Ukraine. The last text Chin sent Renaud went unanswered.
“His voice is still in my ears,” Chin said.
Austin Bailey and Lindsey Millar contributed reporting.