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In Arkansas, slain journalist leaves behind long legacy

A press ID for Brent Renaud who authorities say was killed Sunday in Ukraine.
A press ID for Brent Renaud who authorities say was killed Sunday in Ukraine.

On Sunday, much of the country awoke to the news that the conflict in Ukraine claimed the life of an American journalist. But while Brent Renaud wasn’t exactly a household name, in his hometown of Little Rock, the news of his death struck deep.

Renaud, 50, was killed in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. His colleague Juan Arredondo, who was injured in the shooting, later told an Italian journalist they were filming a group of refugees attempting to flee advancing Russian soldiers.

Renaud’s death sparked an outpouring of support from around the world, including a tribute from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The reaction in Little Rock was no different, with hundreds of posts on social media from those who had known and worked with Renaud.

Mike Poe first met him and his brother Craig Renaud in the early 2000s, around the time they were filming Off to War, which chronicled members of the Arkansas Army National Guard through their deployment to Iraq.

“We would sit there in awe, generally the first few times that we met with Brent and Craig when they came back from the work they were doing and hear stories about how they’d gone through, maybe like a camera a day just because of the sandstorms,” Poe said.

Poe credits Brent Renaud with helping him get his start as a filmmaker, and for encouraging him to continue working after the murder of a close friend. He said Renaud had a talent for getting people to trust him, and ultimately open up to him and his camera.

“And that, I think, helped give him the access that he needed. It helped people trust him with their story, people that were under fire, to trust him to be there and not to be somebody that they had to carry along,” Poe said.

Raymond McCaffrey directs the Center for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Arkansas, where Renaud served as a visiting distinguished professor in 2019. While the news was tragic, McCaffrey said the circumstances surrounding Renaud’s killing weren’t surprising.

“There’s nothing that suggests he was taking any other risk other than the obvious, which is, he was in a war zone,” McCaffrey said. “But he was in a war zone because he wanted to tell the story of the refugees.”

War and strife were nothing new for Renaud. His work took him to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the frontlines of gang violence in Chicago, and on the dangerous path taken by countless migrants in search of a better life in the U.S.

McCaffrey says it’s that same compassion and gift for human connection Renaud used to show an unvarnished look at some of the most difficult subjects in some of the world’s most difficult places.

“To know that you’re going to watch something that probably is going to break your heart requires a lot of commitment, and Brent was able to elicit that commitment,” McCaffrey said.

“He was right there, all the time.”

While working in New York and in the far-flung reaches of the world, Renaud continued to have a presence at home. Many in Arkansas remember him primarily for his role in setting the stage for the state’s burgeoning film industry.

Renaud, his brother Craig and two others co-founded the Little Rock Film Festival in 2005. Kathryn Tucker heads the Arkansas Cinema Society, which took up the film festival’s reins when it ceased operations in 2017.

“[The festival’s] beginning is really what prompted the film industry that we have now in Arkansas, because those filmmakers were like ‘I want to make movies now, and I want to stay at home. I want to work in Arkansas,’” Tucker said.

Tucker says, though Renaud’s films focused on some of the grittier aspects of human life, the hope in his documentary subjects always shone through.

“There’s so much darkness in the world, I think people are getting weary with some of the darkness, so I think having the ability to tell a good story as well as weaving in all of the horrible things that are happening, I think that it’s critical to have those storytelling skills that they had,” Tucker said.

Mike Poe agrees, saying even in death, Brent Renaud wouldn’t want the audience to lose sight of the real tragedy of the story.

“He wouldn’t want people to feel bad for him right now, he would want people to feel for Ukraine. He’d want people to feel with people struggling everywhere, and he would not want us to just sit and worry about his loss. He would want us to pick up our cameras and to take action, and to go where we need to be.”

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.