Filmmaker Leon Oldstrong hails from South London.
Formerly a primary school teacher, Oldstrong has changed direction to bring to life stories which stimulate conversation. His latest project ‘That’s Not Ours‘ absolutely does this …
My name is Leon Oldstrong, I am a father first and foremost and a writer/director.
Creatives are often inspired by life events which drive their next steps what made you choose to become a filmmaker and what inspires each facet of your creativity?
I have stories that have been written by my experiences, contributed to by many people my life has been touched by and who have influenced my interests. As a huge film fan, it was the natural choice to realise my ideas. I decided to direct as I’m a visual person; I see my ideas very clearly through my mind’s eye. I want to create films where the hero of the story looks like me and for my children to grow up in a world where it is entirely normal for that to happen. I want to play my part in black people owning the image of black people and to challenge racist stereotypes.
That’s Not Ours came about after your younger brother was stabbed, why did you choose to capture his story in this way?
When I arrived at the hospital the first thing I remember Ethan saying, was “nobody would help me, they all said no and carried on walking“. Now consider for a moment that he was only 17 – still a child. The stereotype of young black men and boys in the media is so powerful, so potent that even as he was on the verge of collapse with multiple stab wounds nobody would help him, due to a belief that as a young black man he must have been caught up in gang violence.
Even as he struggled to breathe in the hospital, as his lung had been punctured in the attack, he was so frustrated that he kept repeating “nobody would help me, why didn’t they help me”. Shortly after he was out of danger- he was told by his caregivers that he was to blame due to his appearance and that he should stop hanging around with gangs.
Me and my friends were mistreated due to stereotypes, so were our parents, my brother could have died as a result of these negative stereotypes. I wanted to show my brother as he really is, as I see him – just a kid with hopes and dreams like any other kid.
In that moment when you heard he’d been stabbed, what were your immediate thoughts? How did you process your emotions in the moment, and in the aftermath? Have you been able to make peace with what happened, or was your catharsis in making the film?
Ethan is 18 years younger than me. My mind went back to the first time I saw him in the hospital. He was alone in an incubator as there had been complications during his birth. I pictured him bleeding somewhere knowing that he would have been wishing I was there with him. I’m not sure I have processed my emotions yet – it was already a difficult time for my family, we buried my nan five days after Ethan was attacked.
In the moment at the hospital I just held his hand and reassured him that even though he was hurt badly it was down to him that both he and his friend were both alive (Ethan was stabbed whilst trying to protect his friend who had been stabbed first), my emotions at the time felt irrelevant. It was a real struggle to stop my anger from consuming me, trying to remain emotionally available to my children and my brother was difficult but my anger was eventually replaced by disappointment – we face enough adversity as black people as it is, the last thing that we should have to fear is each other.
Right now, my concern is for Ethan and what the lasting psychological and emotional effects might be. The film was incredibly hard to make as I could see my brother’s sadness and the editing process took longer than it otherwise would have as a result.
I guess my peace or something resembling it comes from the fact that Ethan’s heart hasn’t been hardened by this.
Was your brother an easy subject to work with on the documentary?
My brother and I are very close so working with him was easy, but trying to be objective whilst his pain was so apparent was difficult.
That’s Not Ours triggers emotions though it’s not graphic. It’s something about the bleakness of some of our young people’s outlook. What’s your opinion on how we can change the perception of young black children in the media, in our schools, on the streets?
If the mainstream media doesn’t want to represent us accurately why invest our time in it? I can’t remember the last time I watched the TV. The breadth of our experiences is not reflected in the media, as a result, the negative stereotypes of black people form a large percentage of the overall representation. There need to be more opportunities for the stories about black people to be told by black people, our narratives need to be controlled by us. As for schools, black children need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum far more than they currently do and to be given a sense of pride in our history and wide range of cultures that come under the umbrella of black culture. I think a sense of pride goes a long way and believe that representation can play a huge role.
Then speaking to the boys and young men involved in road life and activities what are your thoughts on tackling why they’re so angry, despondent, self-hating and harming?
I’m no expert on the subject, but from a young age, we are shown that black lives are less valuable. We are treated as threatening, told that we’re aggressive – at a time when we’re going through so many changes. We were all teenagers once and I’m sure we can all remember the struggles we had in navigating and expressing our emotions – I’d go so far as to say most adults still struggle with this. If you add to this the daily battles that young black men face just based on the fact that they are black, it’s very easy to be angry. It’s very easy to lose interest at school when you don’t see yourself in the learning. It’s easy to self-hate when you have no knowledge of self and the images of people that look like you are mostly negative.
What’s next for you?
The focus of 2019 is to refine my craft through short films, 2020 I plan to make the jump to feature film.
This summer you’re looking forward to …?
Spending time with my children, having two new projects completed and making good progress with my feature script.
Find out more about Leon Oldstrong and his work here.