“We have been to Juarez at least a half dozen times in the last year or so, covering the violent drug war that is raging here. It’s a surreal assignment, as the ‘hot spots’ we usually cover are in desperate third-world countries, but in many ways Juarez, Mexico, looks a lot like any city in the United States—less than five minutes away across the border. War zone-type death and violence is everywhere here, but often it takes place in the Starbucks or Wal-Mart parking lot.
The scene is so common now that sometimes we don’t even bother to film it: A victim lies slumped over the steering wheel, windows shattered, blood covering the dashboard. As many as 20 times per day, a car driven by an off-duty cop, a drug dealer, or a maybe a businessman, is blocked in from the front and the rear. Hitmen, dressed in military-style uniforms carrying high powered automatic weapons and 9mm pistols, jump out of an SUV and fill the car with bullets. The killers are professionals, if they want you, you’re dead. Before fleeing, they always put one last shot right through the head just to make sure.”
— Brent Renaud, RenaudBrothers.com (blog post dated December 10, 2010)
Filmmakers, television producers, film programmers and brothers Brent and Craig Renaud are artists whose medium happens to be film. The partial blog post above was written when they were in the thick of filming a harrowing, three-part series on the drug war in Juarez, Mexico, often described as “the murder capital of the world,” for the New York Times. The video clips from that project stir deep, complex emotions and show American audiences the haunting, stark reality of life in Juarez.
Filming in Mexico wasn’t the Renauds’ first brush with danger, nor will it be their last. “We have made a career out of successfully navigating the most dangerous places on earth so that we can bring these important stories back to an American audience,” Craig said.
“I value the opportunity that we have to make a living telling important stories; it’s a responsibility that I take seriously,” Brent added. “I think that honest, unbiased journalism is a public service, and I feel good about the work we do.”
Brent, the eldest brother by two years, was born in Memphis, but his family moved to Little Rock just before Craig was born. Their parents, sister and two nephews live in Little Rock, as well as their 94-year-old grandmother. For the most part, the Renaud brothers live here, too. Craig is married, has a baby boy and resides in Little Rock when he’s not traveling. Brent divides his time between Little Rock and New York City, where the brothers have an office.
The Renauds say they became interested in filmmaking via their shared interest in journalism. “When I was young, I used to listen to the BBC on a shortwave radio that my mom got me. There were a lot of Cold War-related battles going on all over the world at that time, particularly in South America and Asia, places that might as well have been in outer space, as no one I had ever known had been there,” Brent said. “I wanted a job that would take me to those kinds of places where history is being made, where life is intense and everything around you is in motion.”
Brent studied English literature and sociology at Southern Methodist University and then attained his master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University. Craig attended the University of Oregon and obtained his bachelor of arts in anthropology, which allowed him to travel a lot. He studied in Mexico and lived and worked on a banana plantation among an indigenous tribe in Costa Rica.
The brothers began their film careers working as editors for NYC filmmaker Jon Alpert, eventually producing some of his films. “Working with Jon took us to Afghanistan, China, Bolivia, Pakistan, to Iraq while Saddam [Hussein] was still in power and dozens of other places,” Brent said. “In 2001, we made our first solo film for our company 501film, called ‘Dope Sick Love,’ which was nominated for an Emmy Award and was broadcast on HBO.”
They have added numerous films to their résumé since that time, including “Warrior Champions,” “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later” (also picked up by HBO), and “Off to War.” Of all their films, Craig is most proud of the last one, which was a 10-part television series that aired on the Discovery Channel.
“For ‘Off to War,’ we followed the Arkansas National Guard for an entire year in Iraq, as well as their families back home,” Craig said. “That mission was a historic deployment, the first time since the Korean War that the National Guard had been sent into active combat. Thirty-three soldiers lost their lives, and hundreds were injured. Our cameras were with the soldiers on the frontlines every day. As Arkansans, it was very rewarding to be able to show American viewers the enormous sacrifice that was made by those soldiers and their families.”
The Renauds have numerous projects in the works right now, including producing a radio piece for National Public Radio’s “This American Life” in Mexico and also producing projects in India and Haiti, where they’re covering children seriously injured in the 2010 earthquake. But the Renauds have projects closer to home, too. They founded the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute to help advance film and film education in the state, and they’re editing a feature-length documentary about a little boy who received a heart transplant at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “We followed the family for about three years,” Brent said. “I think it’s going to be one of the best things we have ever produced.”
They’re also heavily involved with the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF), of which they are the founders and artistic directors. “Little Rock did not have a film festival when we started it six years ago, which is simply not acceptable for a city of our size and stature,” Brent said. “So we wanted to take the best of what we had experienced at festivals and create one here from the ground up. When we started the festival with Owen Brainard and Jamie Moses, we all said we were going to do something world class or not at all.”
Brent said a successful film festival benefits not only the local cultural scene but also the economy. “A strong film industry brings recognition and jobs to a region. It also attracts a young demographic, which attracts innovative companies, and benefits restaurants, housing development and all kinds of other things. A major film festival, along with first-class museums and music venues, is a part of the puzzle that makes up a thriving modern city.”
The LRFF is well on its way to being a major film festival. According to Brent, attendance has doubled each year since its inception. Additionally, the festival has expanded from a three-day event to a full week and has begun to receive national recognition. “The LRFF is already known as one of the most competitive and difficult festivals to get into in the U.S.,” Brent said. The festival was ranked last year among the top 25 festivals in the country by MovieMaker magazine.
The same filmmakers who are celebrated at the Cannes, Sundance and Tribeca film festivals often present their work at the LRFF, but Brent said the LRFF is unique in that audiences get to interact with the filmmakers in a way that is not possible at larger, more media-crazed festivals.
This year’s festival will run from Tuesday, May 29, through Thursday, June 3, and will include more than 130 films, parties, panels and special events. A complete event calendar and more information can be found at LittleRockFilmFestival.org.
“Our goal is to be one of the premiere festivals in the United States,” Brent said. “Some people like to say the LRFF could become the ‘Sundance of the South.’ I don’t really like to compare festivals, as they are all different, but that expresses what we plan to do here in Little Rock.”
2012 Little Rock Film Festival
When: Tuesday, May 29–Thursday, June 3
Where: Various locations in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock
More Info: LittleRockFilmFestival.org.