David Leon: Finding Faith in Between

Written by Moritz Lindert

Photography by Ram Shergill

Fashion Direction by Margherita Gardella

Styling by Moritz Lindert

Grooming by Sara Sorrenti

David wears a turtle neck, coat and jacket by Tommy Hilfiger.

David wears a turtle neck, coat and jacket by Tommy Hilfiger.

Whenever David Leon passes through the narrow residential streets of Stamford Hill these days, he might get reminded of his work. Right here on the edge of the vibrant and multicultural streets of Hackney and the quiet and timeless roads of London's biggest Jewish community is where the 35-year-old's feature film directing debut takes place. After screening a short film version of Orthodox in 2014, the feature length film now premiered in the UK at the Jewish Film Festival. Orthodox tells the story of a young man parting with his strict Jewish upbringing as he gets lost in the multicultural tribulations of North London. A story of faith, finding oneself and being stuck in between – things actor-turned-director Leon knows only too well of.


Without having a drama school education, Leon made his debut on the big screen in Oliver Stone's epic Alexander in 2004, a career start which he now describes as an “incredibly crazy experience”. After going on to play roles in RocknRolla and ITV's Vera, the young actor from Newcastle decided to change positions and started writing and directing his own short films. “I love to throw myself into something”, he explains whilst describing his intention to move behind the camera. “You'll never learn something new if you are not willing to go that extra mile”.


For his main character, Benjamin in Orthodox, this extra mile might as well lead along one of the many streets from Stamford Hill through to Hackney. Being bullied for his beliefs the young man takes up boxing and therefore finds himself alienated from his Jewish community. Benjamin, portrayed by leading actor Stephen Graham, is struggling to come to terms with his religious beliefs on the one hand and the cosmopolitan and worldly way of life in Hackney on the other. “It is a hectic and very contemporary 21st-century life in this area”, describes Leon who is a Hackney resident himself, only few yards away in the streets of Stamford Hill, time seems to stand still. “It's a collection of Jewish orthodox communities living like a 19th century Polish village. No television, no smartphones, a whole different universe within this metropolis that is London.”


As Benjamin is getting caught within this cultural conflict, eventually making wrong choices that seem to be right, David Leon takes extra time to explore and shape his main character. “As a filmmaker the character is the most important thing to me, even more important than story or plot. In the end it is the character that really stays with you”, says the young director while talking about his lead. “I am interested in characters that live on the fringes of communities or cultures, people who live the extreme” – an extreme that might be portrayed by the tough surroundings of Hackney's streets as well as the strict demands of religion. David Leon understands this importance of a character's depth due to his acting career, but also due to his research, a personal dialogue with rabbis and Jewish orthodox families.


For Benjamin, the question of facing extremes eventually becomes a question of faith itself. He is drawn to a place in between. “Orthodox communities dedicate their whole lives to religious learning. I want to find out what that means for individuals on a human level. Some may conform and some may rebel.” Still, Orthodox is not a film about the Jewish religion, but the general terms of faith. “I think people need faith. They need to believe in something that transcends their lives in some way.” Faith as a driving force that fuels both the rabbi and the boxer. And unlike his main character Benjamin, David Leon seems to have found his faith already. It lies behind the camera. 


David Leon was photographed at Leica Studio S in London.