Joost Vandebrug’s debut feature BRUCE LEE AND THE OUTLAW has its roots in his career as a photographer as well as in the very first representation of Romania as a ‘free country’ in the international media back in the 1990s. The orphanages of horror, as the Romanian press called the shelters, in which thousands of children were kept in miserable conditions due to the chaotic state in which Romania found itself during the political transition, were much discussed in media and remain a stain on Romanian history. Nicu, also known as Haiducul/The Outlaw, takes Vanderbrug’s camera into the forgotten underground world of Bucharest.
This underworld is a home for homeless people. An extremely poor community is guided by the so-called ‘Bruce Lee’, a problematic paternal figure who shares everything with his ‘sons’, from love to drug abuse. The Jean Rouchian footage of the underground paint a shaky, unfocused and handheld picture of the out-of-this-world (or perhaps under) band of misfits and their day-by-day life.
Nicu is one of the many orphan children who found a home in the underground more than a decade ago. Vandebrug follows him around, a young boy in transition who ultimately turns out to be a success story thanks to a NGO activist (Raluca Pahomi) who tries to reintegrate him into society, with few of his companions sharing hopes of being so lucky. The material is tough, with Pahomi discussing AIDS and TB issues with the underground community, and Nicu visiting the grave of an 18-years-old girl, followed by footage of a scandalous TV reportage (“from underground to the ground”).
In terms of visuals, the film display a remarkable eclecticism, with the director mixing his own material with episodes shot by Nicu and his friends, Bruce Lee interviews, conversations between the children and Vandebrug, and striking moments of immediacy, like when the director has to stop observing from behind the camera to help Nicu who has fallen ill. The documentary author welcomes the pain of others, harking back to the cinéma-vérité experiments of the 1960s. The voice-over often comes by an older Nicu, chronicling his life in diary-like fashion. TV news footage alternates with documentary chapters to fully investigate the dynamic between the world and the underworld.
Nicu’s commentary on his past is helpful to also make questions regarding his consent essentially vanish. In the ongoing debate regarding the role of the director in observational documentaries, Vandebrug clearly takes a stand, letting his personal and social integrity overthrow his professional mission. It’s safe to say that his solution to the dilemma of whether you should ‘save a man who’s drowning, or film him’ (as Japanese director Kazuo Hara puts it in an interview with Film Menu) falls firmly in the camp of putting down the camera and diving in.