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Shooting Under Fire: Filmmaking in Conflict Zones with Brent and Craig Renaud

The Renaud Brothers

Filmmaker Brent Renaud, who, with his brother Craig, made films in conflict zones around the world, was killed while filming in Ukraine today. He was also co-founder of the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute and executive and artistic director of the Little Rock Film Festival. Here — originally published December 17, 2013 — is our profile of the two brothers and their extraordinary filmmaking practice. R.I.P. Brent Renaud. — Editor

From NYC drug addicts to Mexican drug cartels, from today’s soldiers to yesterday’s civil rights pioneers, from Chicago gang members to Afghan warlords, Craig and Brent Renaud have made a career of covering conflict both around the world and in their own backyard. When not trotting the globe the brothers – both are feature filmmakers and television producers whose work has aired across numerous outlets, including the Discovery Channel (Off to War, Taking the Hill), HBO (Dope Sick Love, Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later) and currently Al Jazeera America (the Fight for Chicago series) – divide their time between NYC and Little Rock, Arkansas. (The busy siblings are also the co-founders of the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, and serve as the executive and artistic directors, respectively, of the Little Rock Film Festival.) In addition, the Emmy and DGA Award nominees have been honored by the International Documentary Association and received an Edward R. Murrow Award, won two Columbia Duponts and two Overseas Press Club Awards. But perhaps their most astonishing accomplishment is just staying alive. Soon after they returned to the States from Egypt – where Brent barely escaped a mob attack while filming a segment for Al Jazeera America – the duo spoke with Filmmaker about the strategies for their success.

How they do it.

“Our crew in the field usually consists of the two of us,” stated Craig. “We both shoot, produce and edit. By design we are completely interchangeable in all aspects of production and post production, which allows us to cover a lot of ground, and keep a number of productions going at the same time. At our studio in New York, we keep at least two editors working full time on our projects.”

“For us story always comes first before tech, and we tend not to overemphasize gear,” he continued. “We have $20,000 professional rigs that we utilize when the conditions are right, but we just as often find ourselves pulling out cell phone cameras, and palm size Handycams when we need to be more discreet. What is most important is knowing how to use well the gear that you have access to for a given story, no matter how potentially limiting that equipment might be.”

“We learned early covering the war in Iraq that traveling light is a key to working efficiently in a combat or disaster zone,” added Brent. “More than once we witnessed network news crews with the traditional set up of a producer, soundman, and camera operator being left behind by American military units for lack of space in the vehicles. Large crews are seen as a liability when things get heated. For us getting left behind is never an option, and in Iraq we always showed up for combat missions carrying only a small digital camera and wireless microphones that we operated ourselves. No tripods, no lights, no production assistant to carry equipment. Sometimes there would not be even a single seat available for a reporter in a Humvee or an armored personnel carrier, in which case we would sit on the hump under the dangling feet of the gunner working the 50-caliber machine gun, or even on top of a tank. Whatever it takes. Run and gun.”

“Recently we traveled to Cairo to report on the crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military. Just pulling out video cameras on the streets there to document the demonstrations was impossible to do safely,” Brent continued. “Twice we were attacked by thugs who did not want the brutal tactics of the military witnessed by the international media. As a result, for most of that assignment we shot almost entirely on our iPhones, a GoPro camera, and a small palm size Sony Handycam with night vision capabilities. The new GoPros have built in wi-fi that allows the user to set up shots remotely through the iPhone. It’s a great way to get high quality images fairly discreetly.”

“For the last four or five years we have been covering the cartel war in Juárez, Mexico. Things have calmed down there considerably, but at the height of the violence a few years ago we needed to be just as compact as we were in Iraq, but for different reasons,” noted Craig. “In Mexico, we wanted to avoid the attention of both the cartels and the police, and the less we stuck out the better. Carrying only a backpack and walking over the bridges that connect El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico we were able to blend in like tourists. We walked right by the checkpoints and past the dodgy bridge lookouts, and hopped into the waiting cars of our security a few blocks into the city.”

Citizen journalists versus trained professionals.

According to Craig, “There are two issues here. The emergence of the ‘untrained citizen journalist’ as a source for breaking news video in conflict zones, and the increasing reliance on freelancers to cover the most dangerous assignments. Both of these have coincided with media outlets cutting back their investment in foreign reporting to save money. It’s common now to see national news organizations using videos people have posted to YouTube from conflict zones around the world. It’s cheap – free – and often terrifically immediate and dramatic. The problem with this, of course, is that it is very difficult to determine how credible the source of the video is. Too much eyewitness video has turned out to be faked entirely, or compromised by editing in order to manipulate a story.”

“When the networks do utilize professional reporters in conflict zones, it is most often freelancers who do the dirty work,” noted Brent. “Many of these freelancers are taking extraordinary risks for little pay. Often they don’t even have health insurance. Many of these freelancers are exceptionally brave and talented, but too many are dangerously inexperienced.”

“Young aspiring journalists often ask us how to get their foot in the door doing this kind of work,” Craig added. “We believe strongly in the notion that if you want to do something bad enough you just need to go and do it yourself. But we stop short of suggesting people take off to a place like Syria or Egypt for their first assignment. You can learn a lot of the survival skills and lessons needed in a conflict zone by working in a less dangerous developing country like Haiti or Nicaragua. Lessons like how to find a fixer or a driver who is competent and who you can trust at all costs; how to interact with foreign military and police at checkpoints; how to handle your finances in a lawless all-cash economy; and how to use your equipment well under difficult and stressful working conditions. We both had years of experience living and working abroad before we went to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those aren’t the places to learn on the fly whether or not you are cut out for the intensity of the job.”

Learning from your mistakes.

“We always tell people that the most dangerous part of working in any developing country or conflict zone is getting from one place to the other, and we have had our fair share of really bad car accidents,” Craig continued. “And car crashes like IED blasts are generally unavoidable, very much the luck of the draw. But many of the other dangers you encounter in a conflict zone can be avoided or greatly mitigated. Most of the dangerous mistakes we have made came early in our career when we were desperate for real world action, but short on lesson learning experience.”

Added Brent, “When I was just out of college – and less than eager to pay my dues working my way up through a news organization waiting for a foreign assignment – I took off for Cambodia on my own dime with just a small digital video camera I barely knew how to use. I somehow managed to be taken seriously and landed an interview with one of the top operational generals of the co-prime minister, whose security forcers were battling those of the other co-prime minister in the streets of Phnom Penh.”

“It is important when covering conflict to understand the politics and the players involved. You have to know where it is relatively safe to be, and when,” he continued. “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. On another occasion I jumped on a motorbike with a translator and rode into the jungle for an interview with a villager I had managed to set up. What I failed to realize was that the subject I was to interview lived in a village still controlled by the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist rebels who were responsible for killing one third of the entire population of the country in the 1970’s. Things got bad enough that it required a heavily armed military rescue – fortunately orchestrated by the general I had made friends with at the beginning of the trip.”

“Similarly on my first reporting trip, I decided to travel by myself through Chiapas, Mexico and northern Guatemala, during the Zapatista uprising,” Craig disclosed. “With absolutely no experience abroad, and way too much confidence in the very little Spanish I spoke at the time, I also failed to understand the extent of the dangers around me. Long story short, a soldier held a 9 mm pistol to my head while another attempted to dangle me off the side of an ancient pyramid.”

“There is so much you cannot control in a conflict zone, but you can get really good at judging risk accurately, and that can save your life more than anything else,” he continued. “Knock on wood, there are many situations we get ourselves into that we honestly believe are not dangerous for us, but might likely get someone less experienced killed. It’s a game of percentages, and even in the most dangerous places on earth your chances of survival are really high, and if you have a little extra experience with negotiating roadblocks, negotiating with warlords, and knowing where to stand when things get hairy, you really can do the job fairly safely. If we did not believe that we wouldn’t do it.”

Reporting the underreported.

According to Craig, “The world is full of underreported stories. We have been covering the Maoist insurgency in India and have yet to interest any American broadcasters in the story. Somalia is underreported, as is the conflict in the Central African Republic. The struggles of indigenous peoples in Central and South America will continue to be important stories.”

“And the underreported stories are not always in far away places,” he added. “We have spent a lot of time covering the cartel wars on our border with Mexico, and urban violence in places like Chicago. Neighborhoods like Englewood and Lawndale on the south and west sides of Chicago are more violent than many of the places abroad that we think of as conflict zones. More children are killed in Chicago every year than American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we are not only interested in conflict. One of the most important and underreported stories at the moment is poverty and inequality in America, and it is something we will be pursuing hard for years to come.”

On Sebastian Junger’s Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues.

Said Brent, “I was invited to participate in the very first three-day workshop that was held in New York City two years ago. (Future courses will take place in Europe and in the Middle East.) Freelancers do most of the heavy reporting undertaken in conflict zones, and most of them cannot afford the kind of conflict survival courses routinely given to staff foreign correspondents. Sebastian believes that had the freelance journalists who were traveling with his friend and colleague Tim Hetherington in Libya been trained in basic combat first aid that he might have survived the shrapnel wounds he received. In founding RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) Sebastian has selflessly pulled his personal resources and put pressure on his professional contacts to help provide free combat medical instruction to freelancers who regularly work in conflict zones. RISC is an incredible resource that is reaching so many freelancers that it will almost certainly save lives. Many of the techniques for treating trauma that they teach you in the course are really quite simple, but if performed correctly on a wounded colleague they can buy you those crucial extra minutes needed to get someone to a hospital before they bleed out.”

Freelance versus The Man.

“Working in a combat zone is outrageously expensive. It is not unusual for us to carry as much as $30,000 in cash around our waists in places where cash rules, and ATMs and banks might not even exist,” noted Craig. “Drivers, fixers, translators and security all cost lots of money. In Afghanistan during the war one warlord charged us $7000 per person to be allowed across the border, and a room without plumbing or electricity cost us as much as a night at a five star hotel in New York City. It’s difficult to operate in that environment as an independent without a network backing you.”

He continued, “Furthermore, in Iraq and Afghanistan it has often been very difficult to get an embed placement with a combat unit without a recognized network backing you, and as an independent it can be almost impossible to get a press pass at all in some countries. But the most obvious benefit of being backed by a major news organizations is that if something goes wrong and you are kidnapped or in need medical evacuation, you at least have some bit of hope that they might help you out. But don’t for a minute ever think that is a guarantee.”

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