Ukraine Was Brent Renaud’s Last Assignment. He Leaves a Legacy of Brilliant Documentary Filmmaking.
In February 2016, a producer named Jeff Newton was at work on an episode of Vice on HBO about ISIS. The United States was carrying out airstrikes against the terrorist organization across North Africa and the Middle East, and Vice sent Newton and his crew, which included a cameraman, a correspondent, and the video journalist Brent Renaud, to Libya.
Renaud, an unassuming but tenacious filmmaker from Little Rock, Arkansas, who’d won a Peabody for his 2014 Vice series about a school for troubled kids in Chicago, was accustomed to filming in perilous environments. He’d reported stories in cartel-controlled regions of Mexico, earthquake-devastated towns in Haiti, bombed-out villages in Iraq. His vérité, fly-on-the-wall style earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert and David Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker, but he approached his subjects with a rare combination of compassion and courage, earning the trust of his colleagues in even the most hazardous conditions. “You have to make split-second decisions all the time,” says Newton, a gruff but affable man of 54 with the build of a linebacker, who worked with Renaud for 11 years in places like Iraq, Libya, and Somalia. “And the only thing you have to make those decisions is experience.”
Newton’s crew was in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, when the U.S. bombed an ISIS training facility 50 miles west, in a town along the Mediterranean coast called Sabratha. He wanted to shoot the aftermath. “Nobody else in the world was really able to film it,” he says. An hour after the strike was reported, they were in a helicopter. On the 20-minute ride from Tripoli, one of the crew’s fixers told Newton that Sabratha was still under ISIS control. Newton got nervous. His “hasty decision,” as he puts it now, would risk the lives of his entire crew. But soon they were on the ground, and Newton had a job to do. He told his crew he’d go to the training facility alone, get the footage, and come straight back. “I didn’t want other people to have to be responsible for my decisions,” he says.
Renaud told Newton he’d go with him to the training facility. “Brent was willing to put his life on the line for me,” Newton says. The other crew members then agreed they’d all go, “one for all, all for one.” The government had arranged accommodations for the crew at a seaside resort, with armed guards keeping watch as if it were a military compound. After a night’s rest, the crew went to the training facility, which had been reduced to rubble and was still smoldering from the airstrike. “It worked out,” Newton adds. The footage aired in June 2016, in an episode of Vice titled “Libya on the Brink.” Newton says it “made the piece,” and no one saw it as a mistake because the crew returned unharmed. Still, he says, it was “one of the worst decisions [I’ve made] in the entire 28 years that I’ve been doing this.”
Calculated risks are routine for a war journalist, and knowing when to take them gets more intuitive, if not easier, with each assignment. “To get that picture, or that video, you’ve gotta be closer,” Newton says. “You get to the center of gravity.” But no amount of experience can prepare you for the unexpected. “You cannot account for every sniper in a window. You cannot account for every mortar that falls on you that you don’t hear coming until it’s too late.”
Renaud was always one to get as close as he could—not to the conflict, but to the people. And though he couldn’t account for every landmine in Mexico, nor for every ISIS fighter in Libya, he survived two decades of reporting in such places. In late February, Renaud flew to Ukraine immediately after the Russian invasion. He was making a film about the global refugee crisis for TIME Studios and knew the horrors unfolding there would be essential to the story. He was right: As of April 21, more than 5 million Ukrainians had fled the country, Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
On a cold day in March, Renaud and a photographer named Juan Arredondo hitched a ride in a civilian car to a bridge in Irpin, a town just outside of Kyiv that had become a conduit for Ukrainians fleeing the capital. As they approached the bridge, they didn’t account for the soldiers on the side of the road, nor for the fusillade the soldiers fired at close range, spraying their car with bullets. And though Renaud was wearing body armor, he didn’t account for the single round that would pierce his exposed neck, making him the first American and the second journalist to be killed in Ukraine since the conflict there began. He was 50 years old.
Although Renaud approached his work with the same immediacy as direct cinema’s most celebrated pioneers—the Emmy-nominated documentarian Keith Maitland has described Renaud as the “bridge between New York’s 20th-century direct-cinema makers and the digital storytellers of today”—in one respect, he went a step further. With raw, unvarnished urgency, he captured the suffering of innocent people amid calamities and conflicts of global import. In other words, he represented “the difference between art and journalism,” says Vivian Schiller, a veteran producer and former president and CEO of NPR. “These were stories that absolutely needed to be told.”
Contrary to how Renaud has been characterized since his death, he was not, strictly speaking, a conflict zone journalist. “He told the human stories that were framing, or underneath, or undergirding the big stories,” says Ann Derry, who produced the documentaries Brent and his brother, Craig, made for The New York Times. Often, this led the Renauds into conflict zones; just as often, it led them to places that were simply overlooked and forgotten. In their 2005 film, Dope Sick Love, they told the stories of two homeless drug-addicted couples in New York, whom the Renauds filmed over an 18-month period. It took them into stairwells and bathrooms where their subjects shot heroin, private residences where they turned tricks for drug money, the backseat of a taxi where a man and his girlfriend, Tracy, celebrated her release from Rikers Island by smoking crack. In a scene late in the film, another of the film’s subjects, Michelle, breaks into an apartment vestibule to get high, and proceeds to reflect on her life. The scene is so intimate that you forget another person is in the room with her, let alone a camera. Like many moments in the film, it feels interminable and claustrophobic, but also deeply humanizing. There are countless women like Michelle on the streets of New York; the Renauds took the time to show the singularity of one.
Wherever his subjects went, Brent Renaud went too. When Renaud and Newton were on assignment in Iraq for National Geographic’s Chain of Command, Newton threw out his back. An ISIS assault had begun not far away, and Renaud and Newton agreed it would be crucial footage to get, but Newton couldn’t move. Renaud went without him. “He thought their story was important,” Newton says of the Iraqis rushing to safety as snipers fired at them. “He wasn’t trying to get up and watch the fight. He was trying to watch these people leave, and how they were going through their suffering. It’s the same exact story he was telling the day he died.”
Much of Renaud’s work for Vice was produced with a TV aesthetic: rapid cuts, adrenaline-pumping soundtracks, high-octane intros by former Vice CEO Shane Smith. It’s in the brothers’ independent projects, and their work for other outlets, that their artistry is on full display. Their 2005 docuseries, Off to War, tells the stories of National Guardsmen from Arkansas who were deployed to Iraq, in 2003, and the toll their absence took on their families. In Between Borders (2015), they followed Honduran teenagers attempting to make the 2,000-mile journey, on foot, to the United States. In Shelter (2016), they spent a year chronicling the lives of young New Orleanians at a residence for victims of homelessness and human trafficking. “They were always pitching us stories in places that no one was paying attention to,” Derry says, “with people that no one was paying attention to.”
Schiller, who commissioned Off to War for Discovery, describes the Renauds as the consummate witness bearers, a rare distinction in an industry increasingly dominated by studio pundits shouting over one another about places they’ve never been to. “Some things don’t necessarily need interpretation, don’t need to be explained,” she says. “You just need to be present and bear witness and see what is happening to people. That is what the Renauds embodied.” It’s “kind of ironic,” Derry says, that after a life of reporting stories most people weren’t paying attention to, Brent Renaud died reporting one that “everyone is paying attention to.”
Brent Renaud stood five feet six and weighed about 140 pounds. Born in Memphis, in 1971, he moved with his family to Little Rock as a child. He played soccer as a youth and was a natural student, developing early interests in photography and the world beyond Arkansas. As a child, he would crawl under the sheets at night with the shortwave radio his uncle gave him and listen to broadcasts from foreign lands. He went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he majored in English and minored in sociology. In the mid-’90s he moved to New York to get his master’s degree in sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and never entirely left. Even after nearly 30 years splitting his time between New York, Little Rock, and such far-flung places as Baghdad and Juárez, Renaud never lost his soft, Southern lilt.
He was quiet. He dressed up only when he had to, for awards ceremonies and special occasions; otherwise he dressed “more like a carpenter,” says Newton. He favored black jeans and T-shirts. He often wore a leather jacket and carried a shoulder bag stuffed with notes and cameras. When he came back from reporting a story, he never talked about what he’d endured along the way. “The work was everything,” says David Rummel, who with Derry produced the Renauds’ projects at the Times. “All he cared about was the story.”
So much so, say many of those who worked with the Renauds, that Brent just kind of disappeared. “It’s not that we didn’t know him or don’t remember him, but it wasn’t about him walking through the door and putting his feet up,” says Derry, conjuring the cliché of the foreign correspondent, just back from the field, eager to regale his colleagues with tales of danger and intrigue. “When he walked through the door, we just talked about the work.”
Television reporters are often notorious swashbucklers, enamored with their own celebrity—Mike Wallace, Geraldo Rivera, Barbara Walters. Brent Renaud, meanwhile, hated being on camera. His low profile enabled him to establish trust, or go undetected, almost wherever he went: In Egypt, people thought he was Egyptian; in Iraq, they thought he was Iraqi. “People weren’t quite sure who he was,” Rummel says. “I mean, obviously he had a camera, but he could slip in and out.” Newton attributes this, in part, to Renaud’s appearance. “He didn’t look like your typical white guy,” he says. “Kinda long, swoopy hair, gray beard…a face that in a lot of Middle Eastern countries he kinda looked like he belonged.” Rummel attributes it to Renaud’s virtual lack of ego. “It was never about him.”
Renaud knew his work would continue to place him in life-threatening situations, and he prepared as best he could to protect those he was with. In 2012, he enrolled in the inaugural class at Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC, a free course in emergency medical training for journalists working in conflict zones that was founded by the journalist Sebastian Junger after his colleague Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. When you hear about that program, it tends not to be about its graduates using the skills they learned there, but about those who could not save themselves. Among Renaud’s classmates at RISC were James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS in 2014, and Matt Power, who died of heat stroke while on assignment in Uganda.
In 2017, Renaud and Newton went to Somalia to make a still-unfinished documentary about former child soldiers of the terrorist organization Al Shabaab. They brought with them a younger filmmaker named Stephen Bailey. (Craig, who by then had started a family, stayed behind in Arkansas.) On one of their first days in the country, Bailey says, he and Renaud, along with their 24-man security detail, were detained at a checkpoint outside of Mogadishu. Their fixer told the two filmmakers they’d be taken to the headquarters of NISA, Somalia’s national intelligence agency, for questioning. They didn’t understand why. After a disorienting drive on dirt roads, Bailey says, they arrived at a collection of cement buildings, where the two men were led into a lot surrounded by chain-link fences, threatened at gunpoint, and placed in a cell with slab floors and rusty iron bars. It wasn’t an official prison, but the other cells were crammed with men. One cell over, they could hear a prisoner being tortured.
In the middle of the night, Bailey says, guards pulled him and Renaud out of their cell and led them into an interrogation room. “They basically accused us of being spies,” Bailey says. He remembers one interrogator slapping Renaud in the face. Renaud remained calm. “He had the clarity to always navigate these really complex and tense situations,” Bailey says. “Even in those types of situations, I always felt safest with him. There’s no one else I would’ve rather been there with.”
After about a day, Renaud and Bailey were released to their hotel but told not to leave. As Bailey recalls, they realized at some point that they were being surveilled, and began communicating with each other through handwritten notes. They got their fixer’s assistant to drive them to the airport without their security team’s knowledge, and flew to Kenya. Renaud and Bailey spent a week in Nairobi consulting with officials both in and outside the government, and after gaining assurances that they would not be detained again, they returned to Somalia to finish shooting the film. They spent much of their three months in Somalia at a rehabilitation facility for former Al Shabaab recruits, many of whom had been conscripted into the organization’s ranks even before their voices had dropped. “They were like little kids who had done assassinations—they’d done the craziest shit,” Newton says. Newton gained their trust by offering career advice about little shops they wanted to open, or tuk-tuks they wanted to buy. Renaud did it by waiting. “I think the thing that set him apart was his patience,” says Rummel, “his willingness to wait for the story to unfold.”
Newton recalls that early in their stay, Renaud took a walk to get footage of the facility. In the kitchen, he met a former soldier, by then about 20, who cooked for everyone there. Renaud asked the young man if he could film him preparing a meal; the young man said yes. Then he accompanied him to the store. In time, Renaud asked if he could interview him. He repeated the process with each of the former soldiers he interviewed. “Just quiet, peaceful, gentle,” Newton says of Renaud’s approach. He had conversations with the men about their lives, often without the camera rolling. “And he just slowly started working his way into that world,” Newton continues, “befriending them, and being really quiet with them and sitting with them and talking with them.” Sometimes it took a day, often longer. Renaud never rushed anyone, in Somalia or anywhere else. “That was just how he worked.”
In 2018, Renaud became a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, a prestigious program for mid-career journalists. Ann Marie Lipinski, who directs the program, says he was “never the first one with his hand in the air. He would just sort of sit back and wait for others, but people really wanted to hear what he had to say.” Lipinski says Renaud shared that he’d been extremely shy as a child. “He would talk about how hard it was for him to talk to people,” she says, “and he would force himself to do it because he knew he needed to. He compelled himself to do things that made him uncomfortable.”
In New York, Renaud lived in a tidy one-bedroom apartment on the 11th floor of a large multi-building co-op on the Lower East Side. Despite working in television, he did not own one. He had a little balcony that looked west toward the World Trade Center. He liked to sit there in the evenings, looking out at Lower Manhattan, and enjoy a beer or two. He had a playful side few people ever saw; he liked to dance around his apartment to the National and the Smiths. Newton believes he carried a lot of PTSD from the things he’d seen and experienced, but he didn’t talk about it.
When Renaud did talk about his life, Newton says, he talked about his longtime girlfriend, Veronica, and his desire to one day have children. He talked about his beloved dog, a pit bull–terrier mutt named Chai. And he talked about his collection of vintage motorcycles that he loved to work on as much as he loved riding them. “To want to tinker on a motorcycle engine is something you have to be very cerebral to do,” Newton says. “You have to take everything apart. You have to put it all back together. And when you’re doing that, you’re kind of lost; you forget about everything else you have to deal with. There’s no post-traumatic stress.”
In 2007, the Renauds debuted the Little Rock Film Festival and ran it for nine years. Once a year, some 20,000 people descended on the small Arkansas capital for screenings, panels, and parties. Bailey, who worked for the Renaud brothers in Little Rock for five years, says that at those events Brent could suddenly become “the life of the party. He was always quiet, never drawing attention to himself, but when he did actually want to be around people, it felt like he was at home in a different way.”
Renaud didn’t have a lot of close friends, but those he had he cherished. One was a Cambodian man named James Chin, who was Renaud’s translator when Renaud traveled to Cambodia in 1995; Renaud later helped Chin and his family emigrate to the United States. Chin lives in Virginia now and drives an 18-wheeler. Renaud regularly visited Chin on his trips between New York and Arkansas; early in the pandemic, he accompanied Chin on the road for a full month, to shoot footage of a country in lockdown. “He had a lot of disparate parts to his life,” Newton says of Renaud. “There were people he knew that he loved very much, but that you didn’t necessarily meet.” Chin was a pallbearer at Renaud’s funeral.
Last fall, Renaud began writing a screenplay. He’d enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing at City College of New York and had a narrative feature he wanted to develop. It would be his first. The professor of the class, Marc Palmieri, remembers sensing “a bit of discomfort” in Renaud from their first session over Zoom. “There was something about the way he looked back at his screen, eyes a little bit off, that had me thinking, This is probably the one I’m gonna worry about, and even have a little trouble with,” Palmieri says. Teaching adults your own age can be hard enough, but teaching one as accomplished as Brent Renaud can be terrifying. “There was something about him that was a little distant, careful,” but also intensely observant, Palmieri says. “The way he was sitting in that box, he was thinking, and listening, and watching harder than I’ve ever seen any student do.”
Palmieri began to feel less daunted by Renaud the day Chai wandered into the frame. By this point, the dog had cancer, and Renaud would sometimes dial into the class from the vet’s office, or from the car driving to or from treatments. Palmieri says seeing Renaud with Chai was the first time he ever saw Renaud smile.
Chai didn’t survive the semester, but Renaud continued to work on the screenplay. By March, he had written 40 pages—Act 1. Set in Arkansas in the early ’90s, it tells the story of a 14-year-old boy named Neal who likes to read Newsweek and take photos around his impoverished hometown with an old 35mm Minolta. He likes documentaries too. In one scene, Neal lies in bed listening through his headphones to David Attenborough narrating a BBC film. “There are 4 million kinds of plants and animals on Earth,” Attenborough says. “Four million different solutions to the problem of staying alive.”
In another scene, the school newspaper’s editor asks Neal to shoot the girls basketball game that weekend. Neal declines. He doesn’t shoot sports, he says. She asks him why. In Neal’s response, you can almost hear Renaud himself, in his soft Arkansan lilt, answering why he didn’t just become a sociologist or a teacher instead. Neal answers, simply: “You can’t get close enough.”
David Alm is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalism professor. His GQ story “The Marathon Men Who Can’t Go Home” was selected as one of Longreads’ Best Features of 2021.