Bruce Lee and the Outlaw Review
Bruce Lee and the Outlaw opens with seemingly ordinary 18th birthday celebrations. Cake with candles; teenage boys passing round cheap alcohol; a succession of (strikingly good quality) photos hung up round the room. It is a typical rite of passage scene but Nicu, the birthday boy, is far from a typical teenager. Amidst the excited chatter across the party, the boys talk of “Bruce Lee”. Bruce Lee should be here too, they say. They miss him.
Premiering at Doc/Fest this weekend, Joost Vandebrug’s first full-length documentary tells the incredible story of street kid Nicu, “the Outlaw”, and his adopted father, “Bruce Lee”. A crime lord and local celebrity, Lee presides over the huge homeless community, living in tunnels and sewers beneath Bucharest’s largest station. A literal underworld which has to be seen to believed, the filth and claustrophobia of this ethereal space is almost unbearable through Vandebrug’s close-up and rapidly-moving lens. Fairy lights adorn the walls, mattresses are squeezed tightly together and armies of dogs hold court.
Bruce Lee looms, both a terrifying and benevolent presence. Often his entire head is painted silver with Aurolac - the silver paint Nicu and his friends routinely inhale through a bag - making him appear almost like a supernatural comic book character. A dealer and a hustler, he is far from the perfect role model, but he also protects his “children” from violence and prostitution in the outside world.
In one moment early on, Nicu and his friends are sharing food and Aurolac, all the time joking with each other. One boy mentions he “sucked someone off” in order to fund their supplies while at other points, sewer residents casually shoot up on camera. There is a sense of normalcy to all of it, which briefly allows the harrowing reality to be forgotten only to be brought back into even sharper focus. In many ways, Bruce Lee is providing a support service, which the state has failed to do. He dreams of buying a derelict hotel, to house more people, with the money Lee and his people have raised begging and dealing, and it’s hard not to see things from his side. The police’s regular arrivals on the scene seem to wholly miss the point.
When he first began filming and photographing Bucharest’s street kids, Vandebrug had no plans to make a documentary. For most of the six years he spent shooting the film, he had no fixed narrative endgame. Instead, he built relationships with his subjects, captured the minutiae of their daily life, and a story unfolded on its own. This lack of outside manipulation seems apparent in the film’s intricate, raw and organic progression. Nicu himself narrates much of it, through voiceover while director Vandebrug is an unseen peripheral figure, known as “Giraffe” by Nicu and his friends - you rarely hear his voice. At some point, however, he directly intervenes, when he obtains medical treatment for Nicu, who is dangerously ill.
It is this lack of contrivance or directorial intrusion - combined with Vandebrug’s distinctive aesthetic - which helps to tell Nicu’s incredible story so effectively. As a character, Nicu’s buoyancy and humour are occasionally off-balance in moments of startling self-realisation. Close to the end, he tells Raluca (his new “mother”) about the time his real father hit him in the face with a brick. He speaks cheerily but suddenly stops and starts to cry. “I didn’t have a childhood,” he says.
Bruce Lee and The Outlaw is a story filled with tragedy and hope. Vandebrug’s approach to documentary filmmaking empowers his subjects to own their stories and finds beauty and love in the darkest of places.