JOOST VANDEBRUG | Bruce Lee and the Outlaw

by Sam Bashaw

Don’t let the title deceive you. The Chinese-American actor, martial artist, and director from the 70s has nothing to do with Joost Vandebrug’s new documentary — “Bruce Lee & The Outlaw.” Instead, Bruce Lee appears as an underground dictator in the tunnels of Bucharest, Romania, a far cry from former Hollywood-guilded Bruce Lee. Vandebrug is the new indie videographer on the block, who’s passion project won the Cinephile Award for Best World Documentary at the Busan International Film Festival.

Read how this unique story of tragedy and hope came to life from the director himself and check out the trailer below.

As a Dutch photographer and film director based in London, how in the world did you find the secretive story of Nicu and Bruce Lee in Bucharest, Romania?

I traveled to Eastern Europe for inspiration. I love it there. So although I knew about the situation in Bucharest with the people that live in the tunnels, I wasn’t specifically looking for them. 

I was shooting portraits of people that I met around the North train station in Bucharest when I was introduced to a young homeless boy named Costel. I shot his portrait and found him again the next day at the same spot. I made a habit of always printing the photos I shoot the day before to give back to the people I had met, so I did the same to Costel. It was after a week of portraits and prints that Costel asked me if I wanted to see where he lived. This was when I went into the tunnels for the first time.

It must have been around Christmas-time because I remember the decoration in the tunnels. It was so unexpectedly homey inside, you would never have guessed from the outside. It was full of people hiding from the cold and warming themselves on the hot water pipes that run like two big arteries through the tunnels. In the back was Bruce Lee, the leader of the tunnels. He must have known I was coming because he invited me down and showed me around. From the 'kitchen' area to the place where they wash and sleep, and he showed me how he stole the electricity from the billboards outside so they could have music, lights and even a TV down there. I mean, it was still quite dirty, extremely hot and everyone was on drugs with needles everywhere, so I wasn’t massively comfortable that first time, but I could see that Bruce Lee really did try to make the best of it.

What was your initial reaction to the Bucharest Underworld and Nicu and Bruce Lee and what was their reaction to you? How did that change over the six years you shot the film?

I think that Bruce loved the attention, he loved to show all his crazy inventions. For example, how to get fresh air through holes and fans mounted in the walls. I was the first photographer to get down there. Maybe after a year or so, the local news caught on to Bruce’s story and he was interviewed lots of times, but never inside the tunnels, always on the streets and once even in a TV studio. By then also foreign news-crews came to check him out. Bruce even made it on to the New York Times. But all of those news reports stayed on the surface of the story and I actually used quite a lot of those sensational news clips in my film, to show how the outside world was responding to Bruce Lee and the tunnel people.

It was thanks to Bruce that I could always come back and be safe inside the tunnels as well as outside. It took a few years before it became clear that this film was going to be the story of Nicu, though. He was 12 when I met him and the film finished on his 18th birthday party. Six very important years in anybody's life, just imagine the life of a street kid, living with his adoptive dad in the tunnels under Bucharest.

I still go back now, 2 years after I shot the last scene. They don't live in the tunnels anymore, Bruce is arrested for drug trafficking and Nicu.…Well, I think people should just watch the film! 

How has the film changed you as an artist and director?

It has had a deep effect on me. I started this project as an observer, a 'fly on the wall' as they say. This changed completely when I came back to Bucharest after a few weeks and found Nicu in the tunnels very, very ill looking. This was when I put the camera down and took him to Raluca, a social worker who I knew for some time by then. Together with her, we took Nicu to the hospital and I stayed with Nicu for the first two weeks. He was diagnosed with AIDS, TBC and I was told he only had a few weeks left, at the most. Miraculously, he bounced back. This has changed me completely as a person, and unintentionally, it also altered my position as a film director, because if I was to continue the film, I had to accept that I was now part of the story.

Once things started to quiet down and I started sharing video clips with Nicu and Raluca and the other boys, I got their full support to make all the material I had shot over the years, into a film. And by that time Nicu and his friends had come of age, so it was very special to watch the footage with them as adults and to hear their thoughts. I am using some of Nicu's responses to watching himself in the footage for the first time as a voice-over in the film.

What is the biggest thing you want the audience to take away from this project?

This film is about a young boy trying to grow up in a very dangerous and strange place. But Nicu doesn’t know any better. He loves his adoptive tunnel-family and he continues to be funny, witty, and even polite. I hope people will see that all the people in these tunnels, including Bruce Lee, were once a little Nicu.

One word that describes "Bruce Lee and the Outlaw.”

I told the film editor, Katy Bryer, to try and lay this story out as an 'adventure'. This is also how Nicu described his own life when I asked him.