TBB Talks To… Director Leon Oldstrong

Primary school teacher-turned-director Leon Oldstrong has built a formidable body of work since transitioning into the world of filmmaking, as well as a reputation for being unflinchingly honest in his art.

Consistently producing films which address systemic racism and the lived experience of the marginalised, including the groundbreaking 2018 documentary That’s Not Ours about the stabbing of his younger brother. The director’s deep exploration of adolescence, personal growth and challenging media perceptions of Black youth has culminated in arguably his most ambitious film to date The Lies of Our Confines.

TBB spoke to Leon about the legacy he hopes to leave as a filmmaker, the need to produce stories about Black youth without trauma as a central theme and the importance of experiencing life beyond the concrete walls of inner-city London.

Please introduce yourself…

Leon Oldstrong, I’m an independent film director and screenwriter from London.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now?

Still going.

The opening lines of the trailer for The Lies of Our Confines are “I’ve never left London you know? Driving here and seeing that there’s so much more to life than Peckham …” I think that it is a statement that many from our communities can relate to. What obstacles (if any) do you feel are hindering Black people’s ability and desire to explore surroundings outside of the inner city?

There are many obstacles – representation being one of them, there aren’t many narratives that show nature as a space for Black people – the vast majority of Black narratives are set in the inner city and we come to see this as representative of us. Being in “white” spaces can be highly stressful for Black people, having to worry about whether you’re perceived as threatening – it can prompt you to make yourself small which can have the knock-on effect of feeling ashamed of yourself for not presenting your authentic self.

The Lies of Our Confines was funded through a combination of self-funding, crowdfunding and a contribution from a youth organisation. Do you think that it is more difficult to get support for Black films that aren’t rooted in trauma through traditional routes?

Absolutely. If you try to think of a Black British film, how many of the films that immediately come to mind are about the “hood“? It’s difficult enough as a Black person to get support for films that are about our trauma, it’s much easier for a white person to be supportive in making a film about Black trauma. There aren’t many Black people in the positions of gatekeepers, and we are much less likely to have the networks needed to reach the people in a position to say yes.

A lot of your previous work is in the documentary space, but The Lies of Our Confines is a scripted drama, what made you want to tell the story in this way?

My passion has always been scripted, I entered the documentary space as I felt that there were issues that weren’t being addressed properly (if at all) by the mainstream and so I decided to do it myself. I wanted to create a space that provided escapism for Black audiences with characters that look like them, allowing them to fully immerse and lose themselves in the world of The Lies of Our Confines. Somehow, I concluded that the furthest away I could get from the documentary space was a horror film – don’t ask me to explain the logic!

The turnaround between the completion of the script and the premiere of the film was only five months. How were you able to produce an amazing project in such a short space of time and find a cast and crew to execute your vision?

You don’t turn around a film like this in such a short timeframe without incredible support. The support for me and this project was so humbling. Many of the team were meeting for the first time but we all came together and really dug deep. The core team are the team I always work with, so it was just a matter of finding a time that worked for us all and then we built around that. Many other crew members were individuals whom I had met on other projects and got along really well with. As for the cast, the number of applicants was amazing, most of the actors expressed that they were really interested in the opportunity to play a role that wasn’t “road“.

As for the script, once I decide to do something I’m obsessive about it and so I just put my head down and got on with it. I give myself strict deadlines that I can only meet if I focus. As it was largely self-funded it was important to keep the momentum going, so we just jumped straight into the edit once we got back to London and were really disciplined about it. Alex, who edited the film put in some serious hours

Your latest film has a supernatural element to it, which is very different to your previous work. What inspired you to take your filmmaking in this direction?

I’m a huge fan of anything that stretches the limits of reality, I love sci-fi, fantasy and horror. For me, the goal is to make films that I would have enjoyed as a child. There are films that I remember loving when I was a kid, Flight of the Navigator, The Goonies, and The Never-Ending Story, and I’ve wanted to show them to my own children, but what happens quite often is the absence of people who look like me becomes apparent, something I didn’t see as a child because I saw their films as “normal”. The memory of the film is then tarnished. I wanted to create something that my childhood self would have enjoyed and could watch again as an adult and still enjoy.

Film is seen as purely entertaining by some, but it is also a useful tool in educating people about many different topics. Do you see your role as a filmmaker as a continuation of your career as a primary school teacher in some ways or are they two distinct chapters in your life?

I guess it is a continuation not just in terms of the films but in the making of the films. Films allow for social commentary in a way that is easy to digest so there will always be some element of that in my films. Behind the camera I guess there is always some element of mentoring by default, I’m the director so it’s important that I lead by example. But I’d also say they are two distinct chapters because there are a lot of restrictions placed on you as a teacher, having to work within confines that are not there for the benefit of the pupils.

Addressing systemic racism has been a consistent theme of your work to date (That’s Not Ours, Safe Space, etc) do you hope that there will come a time when you no longer need to produce this content?

I hope that time will come, and I believe it will come. The amount of Black content available now is amazing, whilst it is still extremely hard to get films made that are not centring the trauma narrative, we are still able to produce our content via social media and so challenge the negative stereotypes of our community.

Q&A with talent and creative at the premiere of ‘The Lies Of Our Confies’ -Image Credit: Luke Tapley

Who do you hope sees your latest project and what impact do you hope it has?

First and foremost, I hope that young Black people everywhere see this film and that those who are inspired to produce their own content understand that it doesn’t have to centre on trauma or the gang narrative and that we can produce authentic Black stories in any and all spaces.

I also hope that large platforms like Netflix, Prime Video, Film 4 etc… see this film and reflect on why there aren’t any other films like this and ask themselves why it took self-funding for such a film to exist. Hopefully, The Lies of Our Confines will prompt them to commission more Black genre films – if so I’ve got loads more ideas!

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

  • A book you have to have in your collection? Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Kid Cudi’s first album – Man on the Moon: The End of Day

  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Everybody Hates Chris

  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? I don’t remember the first, but I remember the most significant One Night in Miami at the Donmar Theatre. This was significant because there were a group of Black men, and amazing actors on stage – the presence was so powerful, and I wanted to see more. I decided I wanted to play my part in there being more.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad – I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I put into my films, and it can be pretty disheartening just thinking “When am I gonna catch a break?”, but it’s ok – these feelings are necessary in order to fuel the fire needed to keep going. Mad – My own failings I guess, not living up to my own expectations of myself – maybe mad is too strong a word – frustrated maybe. Glad- Warner Bros. Discovery launched a new initiative, Black Britain Unspoken, which allowed Black creatives to pitch for a chance to have their short film ideas produced and released via Discovery+. I had the honour of being a judge/panellist and I was really happy to see ideas being pitched that didn’t centre on trauma and the passion of the individuals who were pitching.

The Lies Of Our Confines is available soon. Keep up-to-date with Leon Oldstrong here

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