Brent Renaud is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has shown at numerous festivals, and broadcast on HBO, PBS, CBS, the Discovery Channel, the Discovery Times Channel, and ESPN. Since 1995, he has been working alongside his brother, Craig, on films that have taken them both around the world, and deep within American culture.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process, both in working within the documentary format, and in teaming up with your brother.
With our films – whether the subjects are drug addicts, soldiers at war, politicians, or athletes – the process is the same. We spend a tremendous amount of time integrating into the subjects’ lives. We hope that in doing this before the cameras begin to roll, the audience will experience the story on a deeper level, because in effect, we are taking them closer than they have ever been to the story. Obviously, the small-format cameras and the ability to film in a discreet way with natural light is important, but I think the relationship we build with the subjects is much more valuable.
Your film, Dope Sick Love, in which you followed the lives of two drug-addicted couples on the streets of New York City for 18 months, is profoundly disturbing for the viewer. What was it like to film? Does it still affect you today?
Dope Sick Love is a film we made for HBO in 2004. Critics have called it disturbing, as you mentioned, for the graphic nature in which we documented the drug use, prostitution, domestic abuse, and crime that dominates the subjects’ lives. We spent over a year on the streets of Manhattan telling this story. Because of the difficulty in locating the subjects, we often filmed with them up to a week straight without going home. This kind of severe drug addiction means that the user is consumed by a 24-hour-a-day need to acquire drugs. They are not able to hold a job, or keep an apartment, and they rarely eat or sleep. It was a grueling shoot, but ultimately, I believe it tells an important story about the unglamorous and devastating effects of drug abuse.
Similarly, your award-winning series, Off to War, about the Arkansas National Guard in Iraq, is a rare glimpse into a world about which many people know very little. What draws you to subjects that require your own personal peril? Have the experiences of filming these charged situations changed you in the process?
I don’t think we are adrenaline junkies like some of the war correspondents who we know. We don’t seek out the dangerous assignments.
But once we are committed to a story, we are willing to do whatever it takes to tell that story. In the case of Off to War, we made a commitment to the soldiers and their families that we were going to follow this unit of soldiers from the beginning of a deployment at war, all the way to the end. This had never been done on television before, and it was truly a historic moment when as a country, we were activating tens of thousands of citizen soldiers from small towns around the country to go fight in a foreign war. The families understood the importance of it and they opened up their lives and homes to us.
We spent six months with the families of the soldiers prior to the employment, and then the year in Iraq with the soldiers in the Sunni Triangle. We went along on missions with the soldiers every single day. This was a dangerous time in Iraq, and the Arkansas National Guard lost 33 soldiers during the deployment. We witnessed naive young kids age decades as their friends died and they were forced to do things they never imagined. There was a point near the end of the deployment, after another couple of deaths had occurred, when one of the leaders of the unit took us aside and essentially said, “Look, guys, you have been here eight months and you have more footage than you can possibly use for this series. Maybe you should consider going home.”
It wasn’t a consideration for us – the danger was not an issue, and the story was not complete. In retrospect, I think what we did was worth it. Off to War is a nearly day-to-day chronicle of one of the most important periods in modern American history. We are just lucky that the families and the soldiers believed in it and allowed us to tell their story.
At the heart of The Curator is the idea that art makes for a better world; how do you hope a viewer will be impacted by your films?
We wouldn’t take the risks we take, or spend the amount of time we do on these stories, if we didn’t think it was important. With both Off to War and our latest HBO film, Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, we held screenings around the country after the broadcast in town hall-like settings. The discussions they sparked were amazing and important to those who attended. With Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, a film about school segregation, we produced a study guide with Columbia University and helped to distribute it with DVDs to schoolteachers around the country. Dope Sick Love is used widely in drug rehabilitation centers and juvenile facilities around the country.
We hope that the time we put into the films translates to the viewer having a more complex understanding of a particular subject or issue. We don’t make political films, or activist films, but we do want our work to make a difference, which is why we work so hard to keep our films out there, even after the broadcast.
This is also one of the reasons we founded the Little Rock Film Festival. It’s another way for us to help important work reach an audience.
Why was it important for there to be a film festival in Little Rock? How have the community and filmmakers benefited from the festival?
We started the LRFF for a number of reasons. First, Little Rock, where we grew up, didn’t have one. We have been fortunate enough to show our work at some of the best film festivals in the country, and when done right, they do great things for their communities. Little Rock and North Little Rock are revitalizing their downtowns and historic areas. We felt a film festival could draw from that energy and help guide some of that energy in creative directions. New lofts and bars are great, but you need soul as well, and that’s where we thought we could contribute. Now in its third year, the festival has amazed us by how fast it has grown and how the community has embraced the concept.
There is a talented group of filmmakers in Arkansas, but there was no real cohesive community, and almost nowhere for them to show their work. We show the best in narrative and documentary films from around the world, but we also have a fully developed Made in Arkansas program, featuring workshops, special events, and a juried film competition. In our first year, we received two feature film submissions from Arkansas filmmakers; in our third year, we received almost twenty. Filmmakers are now collaborating on projects, sharing ideas and equipment, and building their production schedules around the festival. And we are only getting started. We hope to begin having fellowship and grant opportunities for local filmmakers soon.
Since we started the LRFF in 2007, numerous film series have been started around central Arkansas. The city of Little Rock has appointed a film commissioner, and just this week, the state legislature passed new film incentives where before, Arkansas had none. We are proud to have been an integral part of the groundswell that helped make this happen.