Review: Bruce Lee and the Outlaw
by Kaleem Aftab
- Joost Vandebrug’s feature-length documentary debut follows the lives of homeless children living under the North Station in Bucharest
Dutch photographer Joost Vandebrug has documented his fascination with the lives led by street kids in the tunnels of Bucharest in books and photographs since the year 2011, when he first met this group of children hanging around North Station, whom he has dubbed the “Lost Boys”. Since then, Vandebrug has developed an attachment to and a friendship with many of the kids, and also with the strange adult who looks after them, who goes by the moniker Bruce Lee. His feature-length documentary debut, Bruce Lee and the Outlaw, screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018, is the latest piece in this ongoing oeuvre, with Vandebrug utilising the audiovisual form to add a narrative context to his photographs and also to highlight how the fall of communism in 1985, which led to the closure of orphanages and children being sent out onto the streets, has created a generation of street kids living in conditions that would have shocked Oliver Twist.
Initially taking an observational perspective that avoids any judgement, the intimate photography captures the lives of these urchins and the cramped conditions in the tunnels. There are hints of Larry Clark in the framing of the shots. He has also been influenced by the Oscar-nominated, Seattle-set documentary Streetwise (1984), and there are hints of Mark Smith’s 2000 documentary Dark Days.
The film recounts how Nicu, a tiny, frail kid with a cherubic face and street smarts, is taken under the wing of a figure covered in Aurolac paint, a well-known figure and the self-proclaimed king of Bucharest’s underworld. There is some celebrity attached to this Bruce Lee, which we witness through archival news footage about his activity, as he tries to make the lives of these kids as comfortable as possible and is called “Dad” by many of them. He also establishes a “Hotel for the Homeless” above ground, a makeshift shelter to be used in the summer, when it’s too hot to live in the tunnels. Despite the oddness of Bruce Lee, Vandebrug shares Nicu’s sympathy for him, as he is actually willing to take responsibility for these abandoned children. Nicu is given the moniker “The Outlaw” and quickly gets used to life in this gang, begging and soliciting to survive as well as partaking in sniffing from bags.
It’s when Vandebrug has to take matters into his own hands after Nicu falls ill that the documentary begins to surprise. An NGO worker, Raluca, becomes Nicu’s new surrogate, and the joy on his face when he goes to school for the first time is infectious. The film evolves from an objective piece to personal, and more sentimental; yet the pull of the streets and of Bruce Lee remains strong. The director has set up the Cinque Lei project, a registered charity in Germany which aims to help the protagonists of the film change their lives for the better. The final act of the documentary (and the least satisfactory) tries to answer the question: just who is Bruce Lee? He is a man who believes that Michael Jackson is a prophet, a petty criminal, but is he also some kind of hero despite all of his faults? Nevertheless, he still remains a distant, mysterious figure at the end.
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