One of the most wonderful things about documentary film is the feeling of discovery – discovery in knowledge and understanding, not just for the viewer, but also the filmmaker behind it. This was the feeling when walking out of Bruce Lee & The Outlaw, the debut film from photographer, visual storyteller and director Joost Vandebrug.
This is a story of intimacy in hardship, looking at the lives of people living in poverty and in the streets – or the tunnels, beneath Bucharest. After the collapse of the Communist regime in Romania, many children were made homeless and alone. Many of these children made a new life under the dubious guidance of Bruce Lee, a modern Fagine character that both helps and harms these children that know nothing else.
The film was shot over the course of six years, beginning as a photography project for Vandebrug; it soon became a life-consuming mission to document the lives of these forgotten masses. Quickly, Nica, a young 12-year-old boy reveals himself as the protagonist of the film, slowly becoming a consistent voice in this strange world.
Getting to see Nica grow from boy to man becomes the emotional lynchpin that holds it all together. We see him rise and fall and rise again as he struggles with his relationship, both with drugs and Bruce Lee, which often blur into the same issue.
Vandebrug found a way to make sense of the chaotic nature of the story; often the film feels claustrophobic and disorientating in these tunnels, as they should. It was with his small, analogue camera that he has managed to give a raw and honest look into this world.
It’s clear that the journey here is a deeply important one to Vandebrug, after pouring so many years into this work, the dedication and attachment to it shows, often the children bring him into the journey too, sometimes without choice.
This is an incredibly personal work from a filmmaker that is bound to become hugely influential in his work and it is very exciting to see where he will go from here.