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Craig and Brent Renaud know how to film difficult settings. The filmmaker brothers from Little Rock have made documentaries about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the drug war in Juarez and post-earthquake Haiti. But according to Brent Renaud, none of those compare to a recent shoot in Egypt, where the fledgling news network Al Jazeera America sent him and the correspondent Christof Putzel a few weeks ago.
"The anti-Americanism is so intense on both sides, but particularly on the military side, the more moderate Muslim side that's against the Muslim Brotherhood who's protesting in the streets. They believe the U.S. has been pro-Muslim Brotherhood. They believe the foreign press has been pro-Muslim Brotherhood. The general of the military has fanned the flames, telling the public that they should be suspicious of all foreigners, especially Americans. Because of that, bringing out your camera in the street is extremely dangerous, almost impossible."
Brent said that he and Putzel made it inside a massive Muslim Brotherhood protest once and were relatively safe, aside from the risk of sniper fire. But he said trying to get inside the protest was another story.
"If you're on the periphery trying to get in, supporters of the military, or basically roving thugs of young men, some allegedly paid by the military, are looking for foreigners and cameras, and they will attack you.
"In one case, [the supporters of the military] had picked off a Muslim Brotherhood protester on the outskirts of the crowd and the mob was beating him, and they dragged him right past us, and I pulled out a small Handycam I was using and attempted to film that. They were beating him half to death. The military saw it, and started shooting machine guns up in the air to break up the crowd. And then as the crowd began to disperse, they saw me filming it. And then the crowd turned on us. They hit me on the back of the head. I started running for the car. Christof started running to the car. We had a translator with us. He was at first not able to reach the car. The driver thought he was in the car and started driving, but we managed to stop down the road and let him in just as the crowd started beating on the car."
Footage from that harrowing chase as well as interviews Brent and Putzel did with a supporter of the military and the mother of a Muslim Brotherhood protester who was killed led the Aug. 20 debut broadcast of "America Tonight," Al Jazeera America's flagship nightly news program anchored by CNN veteran Joie Chen. The network, a spin-off from the Qatar-funded media conglomerate, has made much noise about staking a unique position among cable news outlets.
"Viewers will see a news channel unlike the others, as our programming proves Al Jazeera America will air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news," Ehab Al Shihabi, the channel's acting chief executive, told the New York Times. "There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings."
Al Jazeera acquired Current TV in January for $500 million. In the run-up to the launch of the network, it hired some 900 employees.
But its launch has not been smooth. AT&T dropped the network from its line-up in the 11th hour, which kept millions of potential viewers from seeing the channels launch. Al Jazeera America promptly sued.
The Renaud brothers said that they're excited about working with Al Jazeera America. Already, they've done two projects for "America Tonight" — the dispatch from Egypt and a feature on Chicago gangs that was shown in four parts and will eventually appear on the channel as a feature special. Each featured Putzel, but tended more towards the Renauds' verite style than something you'd see on "60 Minutes."
In one especially harrowing scene it the Chicago feature, the camera follows the mother of a man shot by police as she views his dead body for the first time. In lingers on her and the body with no commentary for half a minute.
"We wouldn't be able to do that [treatment of the scene] with a lot of different networks," said Craig.
This new partnership with Al Jazeera America isn't the Renauds' only focus. They're now employing several editors, and Al Jazeera America employs translators, transcribers and assistant producers that help them turn around projects quickly.
"We're able to do a lot more managing, so we can get ourselves out there more," said Brent.
On the horizon: In the fall, they hope to finish a documentary commissioned by Participant Media's new cable channel, Pivot, on a pair of Haitian children who suffered traumatic injuries during the earthquake that decimated that country. In the spring, they hope to finish "My Brother's Heart," which tracks a 10-year-old boy as his twin brother receives a heart transplant at Arkansas Children's Hospital. When the Arcade, the Central Arkansas Library System's new theater space in the River Market, opens — likely in December — they'll begin supervising film programming. They said they're working on a number of ideas, but envisioned regular theme nights. Maybe "Music Mondays" for a series of music documentaries, they said. Alamo Drafthouse's diverse array of programming is a model.
In Little Rock, Al Jazeera America can be found on Channel 107 on Comcast, 358 on Direct TV and 215 on Dish.