In his first feature length documentary, Bruce Lee and the Outlaw, Dutch filmmaker Joost Vandebrug explores six years in the life of Nicu, a homeless teenager living in the tunnels below Bucharest. The project originated in Vandebrug’s past as a photographer. He spent years documenting the “lost boys” of Eastern Europe: a generation of young men he felt had been forgotten in the post-communist era.
Speaking to VICE, Vandebrug explains: “I wasn’t looking for a story. I was just taking photos and talking to people. Then I met a boy named Costel. I took some portraits of him and I developed them and gave them to him. After he said, ‘Do you want to see where I live?’ And I went down into the tunnels for the first time.”
During one of these visits to the tunnels the filmmaker met both Nicu and Bruce Lee, the self-proclaimed “king of the underworld.” Their relationship forms the spine of the film, as we follow the unlikely father figure welcoming the young teen to his crew of tunnel dwellers. Bruce Lee is the one who gives Nicu the nickname “Outlaw.”
On older man leading a younger one through a subterranean world is always going to be a difficult subject to explore, but Vandebrug is careful to present the enigmatic figure as neither a “hero or an antagonist.” Rather, he describes Bruce Lee as complex: “On one hand he did try to make a genuine attempt make these tunnels into a home for people. So, in that sense he was really trying to help, but on the other hand he was supplying drugs. He was maintaining a situation that was totally unhealthy, everyone from an outside perspective could see how unhealthy that situation was.”
It does make for uncomfortable watching though, as we see Nicu struggle with substance abuse and grow conflicted over his problematic relationship with his father figure. “I’ve tried to show everything and be honest about it. I wanted the viewer to see the way things happened,” Vandebrug says.
While the film’s exploration of Nicu’s existence is at times confronting, the bleakness is balanced by the relationships he forms. Vandebrug was also careful to not offer a bleak, one dimensional, take on the young man’s life. There is time given to small moments of celebration — birthdays, school events, and the introduction of a mother figure.
After following Nicu for much of his adolescence, it also becomes clear that the filmmaker can no longer view him as a simple subject. The closer they get, the more responsible the filmmaker feels for getting the project right. “I tried to tell the story through Nicu,” he says.
Unusually for a documentary, both Vandebrug’s viewpoint and presence are felt more and more as the film goes on. He stands by the decision to cross the line between observer and an active participant: “I had no doubt in my mind, I had to get involved. It was the right thing to do. It became more important to me to make sure that Nicu was alright...The whole experience was very difficult at times. But I feel privileged that I saw him grow up.”