Director: Joost Vandebrug
Words – Christian Abbott
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’s exciting to see where he will go from here.
– During Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018, we spoke to Joost Vandebrug and Andrea Cornwell, the director and producer of Bruce Lee & The Outlaw.
The film is an emotionally intimate look at the lives of the children living in the tunnels beneath Bucharest and their enigmatic leader – Bruce Lee. It was a long, six year shoot that explored the lives of these forgotten children.
The film began life as a week-long photography project after a chance encounter with a boy, Costel.
Did you have any idea then what this project would eventually become?
I never expected it to be a film at all. It was an encounter; I came across this community where I met this boy, Costel. I was there as a photographer and I asked if I could take a portrait of him.
I was shooting on small analogue cameras at the time and in Bucharest there were plenty of photography shops to develop my photos, I would take these back to Costel and I did this a few times. We chatted a little bit and I think it took a week; he wanted to show me where he lived. This is when I went down into the tunnels for the first time, it was a scary moment.
So, this is when you first met Bruce Lee, what was it like?
I think Costel had already asked Bruce Lee if I could go down into the tunnels, because people couldn’t just go there. I was scared of him at the time, and the tunnels. These people have nothing and I had this little camera. I would say I was worried they would steal but I couldn’t blame them, it was just one of those things.
It was only after coming back two or three times that I got to know Bruce better. I soon realised he was not a tyrant. There was a trust that developed between us. It was clear that I would never have been able to make this film without him. Whatever you think of him after seeing this film, you’ll love him, you’ll hate him but all I could do was go in with an open mind and trust him like he trusted me.
It was at this point you met Nica, the protagonist in many ways for the film, how did this come about and how did his voice change the direction of your work?
At first Nica was just one of the kids in the tunnels, he was very funny, very jumpy. I was just filming the situation there, but he always kept appearing. Nica went through the strongest, most difficult time. He was 12 when I met him and 18 when I finished – an incredibly important time.
As a filmmaker, or as a storyteller, I knew that would be an important way to tell the story. To him he was just a boy living in the tunnels, everything was normal to him. It was beautiful watching him grow during my time there and I knew it was the best way to tell this story as a whole through him.
Do you think the long shoot, over six years, has changed you as a visual storyteller?
Yes, very much. When I talk about this film I talk about it as a classic coming of age story. People think of it as Nica’s but it was also mine. I was 28 when it began and now I’m 36 so it has been a big part of my life.
What Nica goes through in the film is so powerful and so dramatic, Joost was there in this really intimate location with a young boy during the most important days of his life, it would change anyone that experience.
Yes that is true, I think I dealt with what Nica went through as a person; I just dealt with it as anyone else would. I didn’t have three or four films under my belt, I could only react and that’s what I did.
What did you want your role to be in the film, did you want to directly engage with the people you were filming or did you want to hang back and not participate?
There is no way around it, at one point I took Nica to the hospital. I saw Nica needed to go there so I took him. I intervened in the film because I knew I had to. To me there wasn’t a doubt in my mind; I hope anyone else would do the same. I directly changed the lives of the people I was filming because I was just there, you can only participate when you do something like this.
You’ve said that the film is in “stark contrast” to the local media surrounding the events of the film, could you speak a little more to that?
Well, first of all, when I first got to know this group, they were anonymous. But because Bruce Lee was such a character, people started to notice him. Romanian TV tends to be quite sensational, it’s just the language of how they tell their stories and I used that in the film to show people how it was being presented to others. It gives the film an outside perspective.
What could you say about the editing process of the film, what did you want the film to say?
It took two years and during that time I went back and filmed again. When I started filming I was just a photographer, I was just collecting footage and there was so much of it. I started just collecting all the material. It wasn’t until the editing process that a story began to emerge through it. I knew there were certain things that had to be in the film but it was getting to them that was the hard part.
Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) is attached to the film as a producer, how did that come about?
And, I think I noticed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on a TV screen during one scene of the film, it seems like a poetic coincidence.
Yes, you did see that. It is a poetic coincidence, it was genuinely playing on the TV while Joost was filming, but we thought it was a rather beautiful and strange moment.
Noomi has an association with Joost through his photography work, and have been friends for a while. She’s also got a connection to the subject matter as she has recently discovered some Roma heritage; she’s talked about this a bit in recent interviews. She’s been a really strong ally for Joost and the film – from watching material to also helping us raise the funding for the edit phase. She will be helping us promote the film going forward too.