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Arkansas Filmmaker Killed in Ukraine Recalled as Fearless, Thoughtful

7 min read

Arkansas colleagues remembering the first known American casualty of the Russian war on Ukraine say that Brent Renaud was fearless in his film journalism, but never reckless.

Renaud, 50, of Little Rock and New York, was the Peabody Award-winning filmmaker covering the war for Time and MSNBC. He was shot and killed Sunday by Russian troops. The vehicle he was riding in came under fire near a checkpoint in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, where Renaud was documenting the refugee crisis.

The funeral service for Renaud will be held on Saturday, March 26 at 1 p.m. at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church. The service will be streamed on the church’s YouTube page and website.

Bo Mattingly, the sports radio, blog and film veteran in Fayetteville and past collaborator with Renaud and his brother and filmmaking partner Craig, said bravery was built into his late friend’s being. But it was a thoughtful kind of courage.

“I became a fan of Brent and his work for the same reason a lot of people did,” Mattingly said in a phone interview. “He was willing to put himself into dangerous situations to give people a true perspective on what is really happening.”

The men were texting last week when Mattingly first realized Renaud, a graduate of Hall High School in Little Rock, was covering the war in Ukraine. “He sent me a photo of himself in Ukraine,” Mattingly said. “I just said ‘wow,’ but then I thought, ‘that’s Brent.’ At the first sign of something dangerous or unknown, he’s compelled to tell the story, and he’s an excellent storyteller.

“But don’t get the idea that Brent was reckless; he was always thoughtful and calculated,” Mattingly said, noting that had served him well in previous reporting on the war in Iraq, the hardships of U.S.-bound migrants from Central America and the crisis in American schools.

“But it’s not like when you think of a daredevil,” he added. “It was just his passion. He was fearless. Yeah. But it wasn’t ever reckless. He was a pro in every way.”

Big Razorback Fan

Renaud was also a decorated sports documentarian, though not entirely objective.

“He was a huge fan of the Razorbacks, and a lot of our conversations turned back to them, with him looking to me for inside information,” said Larry D. Foley, the University of Arkansas filmmaker, former broadcast newsman and chairman of the School of Journalism and Strategic Media.

Foley supervised Brent Renaud in 2019 when he was a visiting lecturer at the Center for Ethics in Journalism at UA, and both he and Mattingly said he had a gift for teaching as well.

“He was great at it,” Mattingly said. “I went and saw him speak a couple times to students. Some people can be really good at what they do, but maybe they’re not nearly as good at teaching. Brent was a great teacher, and it was important for him to be able to bring a younger generation along.”

Foley said Renaud spent a semester on the UA campus presenting seminars and lectures, “and was very popular with the faculty and students” because of his budding career. The Renauds’ films and TV productions have won, along with the Peabody, an IDA documentary award for best TV series, two Overseas Press Club Awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award for work with The New York Times.

Renaud, whose death brought condolences from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the state’s congressional delegates and even the president of France, frequently worked with national organizations like The Times, HBO and Time magazine’s film division, often with his brother.

Their Peabody Award came for 2014’s “Last Chance High” for Vice Media, which documented the Moses Montefiore Academy in Chicago, which serves students with emotional disorders as the city’s public school of last resort.

“The brothers survived several near-death situations, including car crashes, blasts from improvised explosive devices and attacks from members of the Egyptian military,” The Times reported, citing a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine.

They also drew critical praise for their work with PBS, including a 2004 10-part documentary on Arkansas National Guard soldiers deployed to the battlefield: “Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Iraq.”

‘What a Sad Day’

“What a sad day,” Arkansas PBS Chief Executive Officer Courtney Pledger, a former filmmaker and leader of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, told Arkansas Business on Sunday. Renaud’s loss is keenly felt in his home state, she added in emailed comments that were later released as a statement.

“Arkansas PBS deeply mourns the loss of our friend and colleague,” Pledger said. “Brent was driven to tell the most intimate of human stories from across our country and the globe, often in partnership with his brother Craig. The Renaud Brothers dedicated themselves to the growth of film culture in their home state of Arkansas, and we are so much richer as a result. We will never forget Brent, his talent, his intelligence, his bravery, and his unfailing integrity.”

The Renauds were co-founders of the Little Rock Film Festival, which had a nine-year run of ups and downs before ending in 2015.

“There aren’t that many documentary filmmakers that come from Arkansas, and we all know each other,” said Foley, the UA journalism department chair. “And while Brent’s work was nothing like mine, I had great respect for him and the work that he did, and I actually had hopes of maybe getting him back here at UA to do some other things.”

Most reports have said Renaud, 50, was a Little Rock native.

Actually, he was born in Memphis and raised in Little Rock, son of a sales representative and a social worker, according to The Times. From Hall High, he went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he graduated in 1994. Later, he earned a master’s from Columbia University in New York and was granted a 2019 Nieman Fellowship, a prestigious chance to create and study journalism at Harvard University. From there, he went to the visiting lecturer post in Fayetteville.


In the 2013 Filmmaker interview, Renaud described a dangerous scene in Cambodia that closely mirrored the situation that eventually killed him.

“It is important when covering conflict to understand the politics and the players involved,” Renaud told Filmmaker. “You have to know where it is relatively safe to be, and when. On the first day filming I found myself on the wrong side of town with the wrong players, and nearly got killed when the car I was riding in busted through a military checkpoint, drawing fire on the car from the soldiers.”

In Sunday’s shooting, Renaud and a longtime filmmaking collaborator, Juan Arredondo, were working to get images of refugees struggling to escape the grip of Russian troops near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. A driver offered to take them to a nearby bridge in Irpin, but the vehicle quickly drew fire. “We crossed a checkpoint, and they started shooting at us,” Arredondo said. Renaud, he said, was shot in the neck.

The attack was condemned by the State Department, the Governor’s office and the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called the shooting a violation of international law. The police chief in Kyiv called it ruthless. “Of course, the profession of a journalist is a risk, but U.S. citizen Brent Renaud paid his life for trying to highlight the aggressor’s ingenuity, cruelty and ruthlessness,” Police Chief Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook.

“It’s shocking news and a horrible loss,” Foley said. “Brent had a true gift for storytelling, and for making it visual. I think he saw it as a calling to let people know what’s going on. His work was quality, and it was meaningful, and he was always courageous with that.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted that Renaud “lost his life documenting the ruthlessness & evil inflicted upon [Ukrainian] people by Russia.”

“May Brent’s life & sacrifice inspire the world to stand up in fight for the forces of light against forces of darkness,” he said. 

French President Emmanuel Macron said Brent Renaud represented the best of journalists who regularly put themselves at risk to tell the stories people need to hear.

“Today, a U.S. journalist was killed in Ukraine,” he said in a statement Sunday. “Before him, others have been targeted, murdered, injured or kidnapped. Our thoughts are with all those journalists driven by courage and an ideal: the freedom to inform. This freedom is fundamental to our democracies.”

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent a letter of condolenc to Renaud’s parents, Louis Renaud and Georgann Freasier, as well as Craig Renaud and a sister, Michele Purifoy. “A talented and brave journalist, Brent lost his life while documenting human tragedy, devastation and suffering of the millions of Ukrainians,” the letter said, adding that Renaud “traveled to the most dangerous war zones to film the unprecedented ruthlessness and evil.”

Zelenskyy wrote that the Ukrainian people were mourning along with Arkansans, “thankful to Brent for his professionalism and commitment to the values of compassion, ethics and justice. May Brent’s life, service and sacrifice inspire generations of people all around the world to stand up and fight for the forces of light against forces of darkness.”

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