BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. — At the end of a pebbled driveway shielded by the kind of tall hedgerows that are so common here, two brothers from Little Rock are editing the next seven episodes of their documentary series about the Arkansas National Guard division that just returned from Iraq.
It’s quiet and peaceful outside on a sunny August afternoon, and you can see the ocean from the deck of the house where Brent and Craig Renaud have set up shop for the summer. But the downstairs living room is populated with computer screens reviewing the images of violence, confusion and emotion recorded with the soldiers and their families back home.
“This was the first time in the history of television that one unit was followed from deployment through their return,” Brent said. “It was as much about the families on the home front as about the experiences of the soldiers.”
Their documentary series, called “Off to War,” was first broadcast last fall on the Discovery Times cable network, and followed the lives of several members of the 39th Infantry Brigade from Clarksville as they mobilized for, and began, their tour in Iraq. The Renaud brothers used footage from that time period to produce a feature-length documentary film, also called “Off to War,” that debuted last October at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
Both the television series and the film were well received by critics, and the Renauds received several awards for their work, including the grand prize at the Tokyo Video Festival and the grand prize for television documentaries at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
In fact, these are heady times for the Renauds. They are pictured in a photo spread in the premier edition of Men’s Vogue, which hit newsstands last month. They are fresh from an appearance at the Television Critics Association convention in Los Angeles, where their series was one of only six programs chosen to represent all of the Discovery networks. And they are spending the summer in the Hamptons because a wealthy benefactor appreciated their work and gave them her house for as long as they need it.
But the brothers insist that their life is not glamorous, and that they accepted the offer only because they needed a secluded spot to complete a lot of work in a relatively short period of time.
“We’re under a time crunch,” Craig said. “We have to take 1,000 hours of footage and turn it into 10 hours of programming. Normally it takes three months to make a one-hour program. We’re doing seven one-hour programs in one month.”
The product of their intense editing schedule will be another 10-week series on the Discovery Times channel that begins Oct. 15 and picks up where the last episode left off. It will end with the soldiers back in Clarksville, returning to their civilian jobs and marriages.
Watching the raw footage with the Renaud brothers, however, it is clear that none of the men’s lives will be the same as they were before they went to Iraq. In one agonizing sequence, a soldier goes to an Arkansas hospital for surgery to repair his arm. He finds out afterward that his arm “won’t work,” which means he can’t go back to his job. His wife is worried about paying the bills, and she also shows the enormous amount of paperwork that has accumulated as she tries to navigate the military bureaucracy that is supposed to pay for her husband’s medical treatment. It’s not supposed to work this way, she says.
“We are trying to show the burden on the wives and families,” Brent said. Every few weeks the brothers would trade shifts — while one was in Iraq, the other would be in Clarksville to record how life went on in the soldiers’ absence. That even allowed them to simultaneously document both ends of a dramatic long-distance telephone call between a newly married couple suffering under the strain of separation.
“Off to War” is assembled in the cinema verité style of documentary filmmaking, which means there is no narration or music (except for the opening sequences, which are accompanied by theme music composed by Arkansan Matt McKinnis). The skill and style of the Renaud brothers is applied through the camerawork and editing.
But their subject needs no adornment or added edge. Perhaps the most sobering part of their latest documentary is their recording of a nighttime ambush of a convoy on patrol through a Baghdad neighborhood. The soldiers were just talking about how they are sent out to ride around with few instructions, and one commented on how this evening was unusually quiet. An Iraqi police car drove by in the opposite direction and turned on its sirens. Another Iraqi police car in front of the convoy (their escort) also turned on its sirens.
With the position marked, blasts erupted and gunshots broke the silence. The convoy stopped, and the Humvee in front of the one where Craig was filming was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. You could see the chaos as Craig ran with the camera. He filmed the soldiers as they tried to react to the unseen assailants around them. The attack eventually ended and none of the U.S. soldiers were killed.
Still, the Arkansas National Guard had a high “killed in action” rate, according to the Renaud brothers, and the younger members of the brigade especially were changed men as a result.
“The kids originally were not politically educated,” Brent said. “They thought Iraq bombed the twin towers. Now they say ‘Saddam didn’t have anything to do with it,’ and they talk about the 9/11 Commission.”
Some of the soldiers accompanied the Renauds at their appearance in front of the television critics in Los Angeles, and when asked if they trusted the filmmakers more because they were from Arkansas, they said yes.
The brothers grew up in Little Rock and both went out of state for college. In 1997, Brent was working for a documentary film producer in New York and Craig moved there to join him. Brent took a camera to Cambodia later that year to film that nation’s civil conflict, resulting in his first movie. Since then the brothers have worked together on projects for the Downtown Community TV Center in New York and ESPN, as well as a feature-length film for HBO, called “Dope Sick Love,” that chronicled the lives of drug-addicted couples in New York.
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