Custom Search 1

Changing the narrative of knife crime through film

FLIPPING THE SCRIPT: Leon Oldstrong

THE STORIES of black boys and men who survive random knife attacks are vastly overlooked in the mainstream discussions around violent youth crime in the capital and across the UK.

While knife-related deaths have risen to their highest level since Home Office records began in 1946 – last year alone there were almost 40,000 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument – despite the numbers and the varying nature of the attacks, for many, the issue remains a black one.

Despite the numbers and the varying nature of the attacks, for many, the issue remains a black one.

A desire to dispel stereotypes about young black boys had inspired Leon Oldstrong to work on a film which would bring a rarely considered perspective to the national conversation.

Then his younger brother was stabbed seven times in an unprovoked attack in Peckham in 2017.

“Before he was attacked, I was already in the process of putting together an idea for a film to address the issue of the negative stereotypes,” Oldstrong told Life & Style.


PICTURED: Ethan

The horrific stabbing set a new course for Oldstrong’s project. After 17-year-old Ethan had recovered from his physical injuries, his brother saw an opportunity to shine a light on some of the scars that would take much longer to heal. He set about documenting his brother coming to terms with not only what happened to him, but how people, including those tasked with providing his care, treated him in the aftermath.

The result is That’s Not Ours – a powerful, factual short film that sees Ethan open up about the attack and the stereotypes he found wrongly assigned to him as a result.

At one point, he recounts how a nurse who was responsible for looking after him while he was in the hospital told him he should stop carrying knives. He had never done so. Others told him that what happened to him was because of how he dressed.

For the Oldstrong family, the attack was a shock for many reasons, notably Ethan’s lack of involvement with gangs and his general demeanour.

STRANGER

But what was arguably a bigger shock for Ethan was how he was perceived in both the immediate and more longer-term period after the attack.

Despite pleading with passers-by to help him as he bled from his injuries, almost everyone refused to come to his aid.

One stranger, a young man, did provide some assistance, but as he was losing consciousness at the time, Ethan is not able to recall what he looked like and the family have not been able to find out who he was.

“[Although] he got stabbed, he spoke more about the fact that no one stopped to help him and that the hospital staff blamed him because of ‘the way you look’, ‘the way you dress’, ‘stop carrying knives’, ‘stop fighting’,” Oldstrong said.

“The way you dress is irrelevant and he’s not a troublemaker, he doesn’t get into fights, he’s never carried a weapon.”

Yet the majority of the responses did not stun Oldstrong.

“It didn’t surprise me at all. That’s how strong the stereotype is, so I thought we’ve got to do something about that because there are people that meet that stereotype but they’re the lowest common denominator within the community but they’re being presented as representative of the whole community. So that was why I decided to make the film and tell it in the way that I did,” he told Life & Style.

When many people see the images of black male stab victims, assumptions of gang membership and affiliation come to mind. It’s a process people go through to rationalise the atrocities and distance themselves from them – but it also dehumanises the victims, whether they’re gang affiliated or not, and suggests in some way they deserved what happened to them.


STEREOTYPES: Despite having never carried a knife, Ethan was told by hospital staff to stop doing so

Because stabbings are widely reported but the trials, if they even happen, don’t get the same coverage, people fill in the gaps, and those gaps are often filled by harmful prejudices.

The short film’s title, That’s Not Ours, is a protest against the damaging labels often applied to black boys and men.

“What I’m saying is that stereotype is not ours. We don’t create it and we don’t want it,” he said.

Oldstrong’s work has the capacity to open eyes to an alternate experience of knife crime at odds with those that dominate headlines, and highlight some of the adjacent issues – such as prejudice and institutional racism – which actually many consider need to be given more prominence in the debate, in relation to how they factor into the causes and solutions. But he said his primary audience for the film was his “baby brother”.

“I wanted to show Ethan, we see you. If no one else does, we see you,” Oldstrong said.

Reliving the near-fatal attack was not an easy thing for the student to do. “Ethan has a lot of trust in me and he knows I wouldn’t do anything that comes from a bad place,” Oldstrong said.

“He was a bit apprehensive about it – I mean, he was willing to do it, but he stated there were certain things he didn’t want to talk about, certain places that he didn’t want to go.”

EMPATHY

With the lack of any formal aftercare provided to support his mental and emotional health, the process of making That’s Not Ours provided an element of comfort to Ethan.

He’s been shown a considerable amount of support and empathy online, says Oldstrong. But he has chosen not to attend the screenings or talk about what he discussed in the film further in public.

“He says he’s said everything he has to say about it and he said a lot more than he thought he could,” Oldstrong revealed.

“And it’s only the fact that he was talking to his brother that he was able to say it, but the process was a hard one.”

While the film has undeniably had a huge impact on Ethan, former primary school teacher Oldstrong also wants his film to educate those outside his immediate circle.

He wants the black community to realise that it can make content itself, instead of waiting or relying on other outlets, which can often perpetuate negative stereotypes.

He hopes people will be prompted to not only to look beyond the headlines that dominate the mainstream media coverage of knife crime and consider the different types of people affected by it, but also be inspired to tell stories that similarly flip the script.

“When I say similar, they don’t have to involve some sort of trauma but just tell stories of our triumphs, of the positive moves we’re making, of the role models that we have, just to take control of our narratives,” he said.

Oldstrong is conscious that his work will see him return to the issue of knife crime – he’s already been tapped up to work on another project in relation to it – but he also wants there to be lots of opportunities for young black people to see themselves in sci-fi and fantasy films, allowing them to experience escapism, something he is in the process of creating.

“It’s inevitable,” he said, reflecting on exploring the issue in another film.

“Even if I tried to avoid it, I think it’s something that we’ll end up crossing paths with again, but it’s an important [narrative] that we need to deal with.”

While for now, at least, Ethan is done talking about what happened to him, That’s Not Ours is starting a new kind of conversation.

Oldstrong concluded: “To me it seems that there’s active efforts to, I guess, hold back the black community, hold down the black community and if you start to show the true story, then it’s not as easy to hold us back anymore.”

Read every story in our hardcopy newspaper for free by downloading the app.