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Yeah, we know this column is called The Televisionist, but in our way of thinking, that covers a lot more than just television. It's a brave new world, with new choices for entertainment and information, and we take it where we can get it, sweetheart. Increasingly, the stuff to be found online outshines even the best of what can be found on television.
A great example is Brent and Craig Renaud's new short-form documentaries on the drug-fueled violence in Juarez, Mexico, that debut Dec. 8, 9 and 10 on the New York Times website, video.nytimes.com. Originally from Little Rock, the Renaud brothers are the brains behind the Little Rock Film Festival, and have often put themselves in harm's way in pursuit of their documentary projects, which take viewers from the battlefields of Iraq to the rubble-strewn streets of post-earthquake Haiti. In this new doc, the Renauds bring us all a glimpse of the border hell created by this country's seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs. (You can also find earlier Renaud docs from Juarez on the Times' video page).
Though the three docs are less than 10 minutes each, their weight and power shines through, mostly thanks to the willingness of the Renauds to go beyond the dry statistics and easy answers and seek out the always-more-dangerous truth. In one documentary, titled "Juarez Youth," the filmmakers brave some of Juarez's roughest slums to speak to members of the city's burgeoning street gangs — baby-faced killers who often wind up as cannon fodder in the wars between the cartels. These are just kids, but they've grown up in a world were life is so cheap that people no longer get alarmed at stepping over a dead body in the street. After that, the brothers seek out the head of social services in Juarez, a man charged with running the largest juvenile lockup in Latin America.
In another short doc, titled "Security in an Insecure Land," which is already posted on the Times' website, the Renauds tell the story of one of the few legal growth industries in Juarez: private security. In this segment, they profile the owner of a private security firm, a man who knows that violence is good for his business but who is still crushed by the violence he sees on the streets where he played as a boy. In one scene, he interviews former Juarez policemen looking to become security officers, but has to turn them away when it becomes clear they're entirely unqualified; in another, he shares a quiet dinner with his family, lamenting with his wife that they may have to soon move the children to El Paso, Texas, so they can be safe. In maybe the most touching scene, he shows off his collection of intricate toy soldiers, which he paints late into the night when the faces of the dead men he has seen make it impossible for him to sleep.
Given that I'm a journalist, it might be the third segment, titled "The World's Most Dangerous Beat," that was the most moving. Here, the Renaud brothers profile several members of the media in Juarez, who face the constant threat of death because something they wrote or said on air was deemed threatening to the cartels or corrupt local police. More than 50 journalists have been killed there in the last five years. The amazing heroes from this short doc are enough to make you thank your lucky stars you were born in America: Augustine Mesa, a cameraman and reporter for Juarez's channel 44, who covers local gang murders in horrific detail, but doesn't investigate any further because he knows it could mean death; a female crime reporter who works across the hall from the office of a co-worker who was assassinated for doing the same job; a journalist who was actually granted permanent political asylum in the U.S. because of threats by the cartels; an editor for El Diario who runs his reporter's stories un-bylined for fear she will be murdered.
Watching such things from here in safe-and-sane America, they seem like — for lack of a better word — absolute madness; the perfect example of what happens when society reaches its breaking point. That the Renaud brothers went there, riding in bulletproof cars with machine-gun-toting bodyguards, is amazing and moving in and of itself. That they came back with these stories is proof that there are still some people in the world who value the truth over their own lives.
While the New York Times series isn't all that long, it is mighty, and should give every one of us a good bit of pause — enough, at least, to say thanks that we live where we do, in a country where power and justice amount to more than what can be found in the barrel of a gun.