Brent Renaud, who grew up in Little Rock, traveled the world to tell the stories of the overlooked with the hope that the world could never again overlook them. Brent’s films made the stories personal.Three weeks ago, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Brent traveled there to tell the story of Ukrainian refugees who were fleeing the unprovoked attack on their nation.
On Sunday, Russian soldiers shot and killed Brent as he was traveling to film Ukrainians who were escaping their country. His story has made this war personal. Brent’s death reminds us that the war is much closer to Arkansas than the 6,000 miles between Little Rock and Kyiv.
There are other Arkansas connections. Kateryna Pitchford is a Ukrainian who is an assistant professor at Central Baptist College in Conway. She speaks daily to relatives and friends in her hometown of Dnipro. At the Arkansas Leadership Prayer Breakfast two weeks ago, Kateryna prayed for her country. This week, she shared her story with employees of munitions companies in East Camden.
Those aerospace and defense companies in south Arkansas bring the war close to home. Firms such as General Dynamics, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Lockheed Martin build warheads and propulsion systems that Ukraine’s defenders are using to resist Russia’s brutal assault.
And now Brent Renaud, an Arkansas treasure, has died in that war as he documented the tragedy for millions who were forced to leave their homes. Brent “devoted his life to telling the stories of overlooked people,” as his brother and partner, Craig, told Time magazine.
Brent was the first American journalist to die reporting about the war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent a letter of condolence to Brent’s family. Brent was a “talented and brave journalist (who) lost his life while documenting human tragedy, devastation and suffering of the millions of Ukrainians,” President Zelenskyy wrote.
Gabe Gentry met Brent and Craig a decade ago when he helped them put on the Little Rock Film Festival, which the brothers founded. Gabe spent a month with Brent as he documented the ISIS invasion of Iraq. Brent’s demeanor and patience earned the trust of the people whose story he was filming. Regardless of the situation, Brent remained calm. Gabe says Brent was “a patient listener. When he did speak, the words had weight.”
Many Arkansans first learned of the Renaud brothers through their 10-part documentary Off to War, which told the story of the Arkansas National Guard’s year-long deployment to Iraq through the eyes of the soldiers as well as their families back in Arkansas.
For such people as Vladimir Putin, Brent Renaud was a threat. As the Dallas Morning News said in an editorial: “(Brent’s) work represented something that is terribly dangerous to autocrats and absolutely crucial for democracy. He was gathering facts. He was shining a light on the terror being waged in Ukraine.”
Brent Renaud lost his life in his effort to tell the story of this war and its victims. His life and death have made the war personal for Arkansas, although as one of his fellow filmmakers said, Brent would be uncomfortable with the attention and accolades. But for the moment, his life has become the story, an innocent man killed by the global ambitions of a single corrupt leader. His death – and the deaths of millions of innocent Ukrainians – calls the world to act with urgency against Vladimir Putin. Our grief and anger over this brutal and unprovoked invasion should forge in us the will to end this assault. Brent has showed us why we must do this. It’s up to us to figure out how.