The TDF Interview - Joost Vandebrug
Bruce Lee and the Outlaw premiered at Sheffield’s/Doc Fest this month. Amid Bucharest’s homeless epidemic, the film follows teenager Nicu (the “Outlaw”) and his friends living in the tunnels beneath the city, under the care of crime lord and surrogate “dad” Bruce Lee.
The film also highlights the work of Raluca, who has helped the tunnel community for years, and ultimately gave Nicu a home, becoming a “mother” to counter his “father”, Bruce Lee, and the tunnels.
Filmed over six years, Bruce Lee and the Outlaw is the debut documentary of photographer, Joost Vandebrug. We caught up with Joost to talk about what it was like to live through such an incredible story as a newbie documentary maker.
How did the project first begin?
It started as a photography project. So it started very, very small - an aesthetic project I suppose, because I just love Eastern Europe, I love to go there. There was this boy Costel, who I took a few photos of, who was on the side of the road begging. I just shot a photo of him, developed it gave it back to him – a printed analogue – the next day. I did it again, and then again. I think he’d already asked Bruce Lee by then, if it was OK to invite me down. So when Costel took me into the tunnels to show me where he lived, I met Bruce Lee.
You go down to the tunnels for the first time and you see something completely opposite from what you expect. First of all, you expect this boss to be a tyrant, a strong individual who is really harsh to the people who live there and charges them money. And when you go down there, you see… it’s just after Christmas and the Christmas decorations are up. People are eating and cooking together, and this Bruce Lee character is being kind and is referred to as “dad”. And then, as a photographer or a filmmaker, you think 'OK, I’d like to stick around, so I’ll go along for the ride a little bit.'
At what point did you decide this was going to be a documentary?
Well, I keep saying it wasn’t a documentary at first but let’s be honest, you’re not filming for nothing. I knew there was something in there, but there was so much going on, there were so many stories. So, I think when I was saying it wasn’t a documentary, I was trying to say I was so lost in all the stories that were unfolding in front of me, I just didn’t know. There were all these things and I was just like “Aah… I just wanna film everything.”
The turning point, I think, was when Nicu got ill and had to go to hospital. It definitely changed how I perceived the group and how I was interacting with the group. I held back much more at first. When he got ill, it got much more serious. And at the same time, it was clear that his story was going to be a very strong one, but it was more important for him to make it, than for me to make a film. You know what I mean? So, although the film became stronger, the film was also in second place.
You’ve said, previously, that Nicu’s voiceover during the film came about largely from showing him old footage and getting him to talk about what was happening at the time?
Well I wanted him to be involved. Some things are just so strong. I mean, I don’t know if you remember one of the scenes on the bench when he’s talking about prostitution, that’s not something you can put in a film lightly. Everything that he went through is so strong and I needed to have him on board first. Because he’s 20 now, I could show it to him as an adult and talk about it and how he felt. And that was so important to me. And, also, to have Raluca on board and have them agree and participate, and be part of this story and build it together. Only if that was the case, was I going to make the film. And that’s what we’ve done.
Was it daunting working with such young people?
Hugely. For all the obvious reasons. And I can only say I am very lucky and proud to have them on board and that I could take this film, this footage, to a place where they are all adults. So I could sit on this footage for all those years and make a decision on what we were going to do and what this film was going to be. By then, everyone in the film was an adult and they could look at the film as adults and agree with it as adults. Otherwise, I couldn’t have made the film, I don’t think.
Is that why the production process was so long, because you wanted to wait until they were adults?
That was definitely part of it, yes. It was a leap of faith. It’s a leap of faith to take it to a place where you could release the footage. I didn’t know, at the time, whether you could take it to a place where they are adults and release it in an ethical way.
Did you have a storyboard?
And how did you go about converting six years of footage into a film?
I had Katie Bryer as an editor on this, and she has held my hand throughout. She was able – for the first time ever – to look at all the material as an outsider and tell me what she saw. And then we could talk about it, and I could tell her what I felt while I was shooting it, and that was the storyboarding process in hindsight, I suppose. That’s how this film came about really; in the editing suite. I knew what was going on behind the scenes, so it was incredibly interesting being able to talk to someone about it for the first time and to shape the story. Katie went to Bucharest near the end, as well, which was incredible. She met everyone and that was a very special moment, for me and for the boys.
What do you hope the film will achieve?
Well I don’t know what happens when you release a film. I’ve never released a film before. But what I really hope now is that it will have a good festival life, I think that would be really great. And I’m putting energy into the GoFundMe page to get something for Raluca. She’s not government-funded at all. Everything is private. So she literally works with €10 a day, or maybe a few hundred a month. And she’s helping all these kids, including Nicu, so donating to her means she can look after Nicu. So, if you’re asking me what would I like this film to do, then it’s awareness. Tell Nicu’s story. I really want something for Raluca, because she’s trusted me. She’s trusted me so much to make this film.
The film has set up a GoFundMe page to support Raluca’s work here
Visit here to find out more about Bruce Lee and the Outlaw