In the latest ‘10 minutes with’ interview, The Guardian’s Laurence Topham discusses his BAFTA longlisted film, how one election night in Chicago changed his view of journalism forever and the importance of kindness.
How did you get into journalism?
I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, but after graduating from university and trying various roles I found that none of them gave me the hands-on experience I craved. I joined The Guardian’s video team in 2008 and in my first few months was paired with then-Guardian columnist, Gary Younge, to report on the US presidential elections.
We were in Chicago for election day as the crowds were descending on Grant Park, where Obama was expected to deliver his victory speech. I assumed we’d go there too, but instead Gary opted for a smaller-scale election night party in Chicago’s South Side. The atmosphere was both intimate and electric — from the tears of joy and relief, to the police cars driving past outside hollering ‘Obama! Obama!’ over their megaphones. What made it feel distinct was how personal it felt to the people around us. I probably learnt more about journalism in that one night than in all my years since, and it all came down to having an incredible mentor.
Why does journalism matter?
I think journalism matters because stories matter — and stories are about making sense of the world around us and connecting with other people. We live in a digital age that allows narratives of all shapes and sorts to be produced, disseminated and mass consumed at the click of a button. While that can be empowering, it can also be highly influenced by commercial and political interests. In this sense, scrutinising who is telling the story, and why, has never been more important.
Best scoop (yours or someone else’s)?
A few years ago, I worked on an extraordinary story about the race to save American aid worker, Peter Kassig, who was kidnapped and later executed by Isis in 2014. My then colleagues, Shiv Malik and Mustafa Khalili, masterfully pieced together a very complex story, involving a controversial Jewish lawyer from New York and a famous al-Qaida scholar, and I helped to adapt the story to video. It was a gut-wrenching tragedy, with a lot of surprising twists and turns, and I’m very proud of the work we did on it.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve recently finished a documentary short called My Brother’s Keeper about former Guantánamo detainee, Mohameodu Ould Salahi, and his unlikely friendship with his American guard. Mohamedou is an extraordinarily kind and forgiving human being, so despite the story’s dark contours, I wanted to try and make a film that celebrated his humanity and his warmth.
Career highlight so far?
I felt very fortunate that My Brother’s Keeper was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival in 2020 and went on to win a few awards on the virtual festival circuit, but one of the biggest highlights was hearing that we’d been BAFTA longlisted for British Short Film. That took me by complete surprise!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I once went to a talk by Nick Fraiser, the legendary former commissioning editor of BBC Storyville. He said there is one quality a filmmaker should possess above all others: be kind. It’s a mantra I try to live by whatever project I’m working on.
Who or what inspires you most?
When I started at The Guardian I had the good fortune of working alongside the author and columnist Gary Younge. He kindly took me under his wing and over the years we became good friends. Whenever I read one of his books, or articles, I am constantly inspired by the way he interprets the world. He brings a tremendous amount of insight and wisdom to every thought and looks at crucial details that most people choose to ignore.
Who would be your fantasy dinner party guests and why?
Kathleen Kennedy because I want her to hear my idea for the next Star Wars spin-off series, Daniel Kaluuya because he’s one of the finest British actors working today and lastly, Mohamedou Ould Salahi because he’s one of the smartest people I know, and his Michael Scott impressions are hilarious.
How do you switch off from work? Gym or gin?
I’m a huge cinephile, so watching a good movie usually does the trick.
If I wasn’t a journalist, I would be…
… in desperate need of career advice.