Award-Winning Documentary Producer Will Lecture at UofA

Award-winning journalist and producer Brent Renaud films for National Geographic in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017.

UPDATE 4:30 p.m. Nov. 5 – Renaud will speak at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History from 6-8 p.m. on Nov. 20 about his work as a journalist, filmmaker and photographer. The speech is open to the public.

A Peabody-Award-winning journalist and producer is the Center for Ethics in Journalism’s 2019 Visiting Professor.

Returning to Arkansas after a year-long fellowship at Harvard University, Brent Renaud is excited to be back home and teaching at the UofA, he said. 

While Renaud is at the UofA, he wants to encourage students to continue to develop their skills and ambition in the field of journalism, he said.“No matter where they come from, even if that is a small town in Arkansas, it is very possible,” Renaud said. 

Renaud’s career as a journalist began when he decided to make his first documentary with his brother Craig Renaud titled “Dope Sick Love” in 2005, he said. The documentary was picked up by HBO and was nominated for best documentary at the Emmys. 

“Because I had worked as an editor for quite a few years for Jon Alpert, I pretty much knew what I was doing right when I hit the ground running,” Renaud said. 

“Dope Sick Love” follows two couples with heroin addictions around the streets of New York as they try to fuel their addiction. Renaud and his brother were so invested in filming the documentary that they would stay on the streets with the couples for weeks, he said.

“I remember waking up one time on a sewer grate in the city with rain pouring down on top of me, and I had put a trash bag over my camera and fallen asleep,” Renaud said. “At that point there was really nothing between me and the characters, except for I was not high.” 

Renaud grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he attended Hall High School. After graduating high school, he attended Southern Methodist University, where he majored in English. He then got his master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University in New York City. 

During his time at Columbia University, Renaud became fascinated with journalism because he was surrounded by media outlets like the New York Times and NPR, he said. Renaud interned at any place that would take him, such as BBC, PBS and Rolling Stone, he said. 

Now, Renaud produces documentaries at 501 Films, his company based in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he and his brother work with others in the documentary field to make films for companies such as Vice News, HBO and The New York Times, he said. 

One of the films to come from 501 Films is Renaud and his brother’s 2016 documentary “Shelter” for Vice News. The documentary focuses on the stories of young adults who suffer from PTSD, abuse, and mental illnesses who live in the Covenant House shelter in Louisiana. 

“Many of the homeless shelters are essentially becoming de facto mental institutions, because so many of these kids are suffering from extreme mental and emotional issues,” Renaud said. 

Personally, Renaud considers this documentary his biggest achievement due to the documentary bringing in $2 million worth of donations and support to the issue of youth homelessness and mental illness to the New Orleans area, he said. 

“To be able to do the work that we do in the style that we do it in, telling these stories in an artful way, and to have that tangible impact of bringing in that much money and that much attention to an issue is the perfect storm,” Renaud said.    

Though Renaud wants to continue his documentary work, he plans on focusing on it a little less to allow him to explore non-traditional mediums, like podcasts and scripted television shows based on true stories, for him to tell people’s stories, he said. 

This is the case for Renaud’s podcast he is producing called American Jihadi, scheduled to release Nov. 18, which tells the story of Omar Hammami, from Alabama, and his transformation in joining the terror group al-Shabaab. Renaud said he hopes to eventually turn the podcast into a TV show. 

“For me, the medium is whatever the medium needs to be to tell the story,” Renaud said. 

Renaud’s next lecture will be Nov. 18 as a continuation of his previous lectures given for the Visiting Distinguished Professor program.

Nathanael Davis is a staff reporter for The Arkansas Traveler.

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