Chemical Weapons: Obtaining the Evidence

    Covering the Middle East, is not for the faint hearted, but it was filming in France, which filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Renaud, 28, found most difficult when making his latest documentary Chemical Weapons: Made in Europe.
    The film will be premiered in the UK on 20 March, during the CIJ London Investigative Film Festival.
    Renaud is a reporter for the French press agency Premieres Lignes, well-known for its investigative documentaries.
    The CIJ’s Marina Calland spoke to him about the making of Chemical Weapons: Made in Europe:
    What gave you the idea to make a film about European chemical weapons being used in the conflicts in the Middle East?
    Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, there were several allegations about the use of chemical weapons in the conflict between Assad's army and the rebel forces. Some of my colleagues from Le Monde even caught one of them on tape. They brought back some evidence that proved chemical agents were used.
    But this report hasn't been followed by real diplomatic consequences.
    Then came 21 August 2013. [The chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, that killed hundreds].
    The world witnessed a chemical attack, almost in real time.  This was the beginning of my investigation.
    The first question was: who was responsible for this massacre?
    For safety reasons, investigating this issue in Syria would have been very complicated, so I chose a different angle: how could Assad's Syria use weapons that have been banned by the international community for almost a century?
    Who provided the regime with the chemicals, the equipment? I was astonished to discover that it was the European countries, including France. When I researched other areas like Iraq or Bahrain, to my astonishment, the chemical weapons stocked there came from Europe too!
    What was the most difficult bit of research and filming?
    The most difficult part of the research was Syria. Thanks to the work of independent bloggers like Elliot Higgins, I had some interesting elements such as authenticated amateur footage.
    But as I was investigating, it was surprising that the most difficult pieces of evidence to obtain were the ones regarding our own governments.
    For instance, in France there's no transparency at all when it comes to exporting sensitive chemicals that can be used to make chemical weapons. The French customs do have a copy of every transaction but they're not willing to disclose it to reporters.
    Strangely, the most difficult part of filming was in France.
    East of the country, in the Alsace region, I tried to get an on camera statement from one of the executives or spokesperson for De Dietrich, a company involved in selling sensitive pieces of equipment to Iraq in the 80s. Despite everything I tried, including coming to the headquarters without notifying them, I never managed to get anyone on camera. This is a shame.
    I hadn't expected this. I thought the accusations of providing such a dictatorship with sensitive material would have convinced the company to make a statement. To me, their silence has a taste of guilt.
    Was it hard to translate your investigation into a visual story and how did you go about it?
    It was hard in way, because I had to talk about chemical weapons for 52 minutes, but of course you cannot see a chemical weapon in action - it’s invisible!
    Sarin for example is completely odourless and invisible. So, how can you translate such a weapon into images? You can show the vector - for example a missile - but not the chemical itself.
    We had to find visual solutions.
    As I mentioned, I was really helped by the fact that there are so many amateur videos online. With Syria for example, the images of the 21 August attack were gruesome, haunting. But I have the feeling that it is a good thing, both for reporters like us, and - hopefully one day - for the judges at the International Criminal Court.
    In Iraq, the fact that in the little town of Halabja - where 5000 people were gassed to death in 1988 - there is still an impressive amount of rubble and destruction from the day of the attack. It helped me to film very visual aftermath of the attack. With the pictures of the streets of Halabja, I think you can imagine what the people there have been through.
    What are your hopes for your investigation? What are you hoping to change and has anything changed as a result of your documentary?
    For Iraq and for Bahrain some things have changed since the documentary.
    The victims of the chemical attacks in Halabja are now suing companies in several European countries like Germany and Spain. The French justice system is still investigating and there might be some developments in the coming months.
    As for Bahrain my sources tell me that since I raised the question of exports of French tear gas canisters after the embargo in a press conference at the Ministry of Defence, they didn't see any new French tear gas canisters being thrown at the protesters there.
    I'm not saying my question changed everything, but at least it seems the French company involved didn't want more bad publicity.  
    Jean-Baptiste Renaud’s film Chemical Weapons: Made in Europe will be premiered at the CIJ London Investigative Film Festival on Friday 20 March. Drinks reception at 6pm, screening at 7pm, followed by a Q&A session with Jean Baptiste Renaud.