2020 Sundance Docs in Focus: BE WATER

BE WATER | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Bao Nguyen details the brief but impactful career of legendary actor Bruce Lee.

Festival Section:
US Documentary Competition

Sundance Program Description:

In 1971, before his superstardom, Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong to get the opportunities to be a lead actor that eluded him in America. In the two years before his untimely death, Lee completed four films, which changed the history of film and made him a household name. Through rare archival footage, memories of family and friends, and his own words, the story of that time and Lee’s prior experiences are told with an intimacy and immediacy that have infrequently been used in earlier tellings of his legend.

Growing up and living between the West and the East, Lee was ahead of his time in thinking about the transnational audience. He experienced the racist reaction of an American film industry inundated by a subservient and menacing image of Asian people – and learned he’d have to tell his own stories to escape it. Director Bao Nguyen elegantly weaves Lee’s personal struggle for visibility with that of his times and reminds us that though it was for a short time, Lee’s star burned so brightly we still see it today.

Some Background:


  • Bao Nguyen

    Nguyen’s sophomore feature, following 2015 Tribeca opener LIVE FROM NEW YORK!, is his first at Sundance.


  • Julia Nottingham
    Past Sundance docs:

    TROPHY (2017)

    Dorothy Street Pictures’ Nottingham also produced alumni fiction feature SKATE KITCHEN (2018).

  • Gentry Kirby

    ESPN Films’ Kirby is an Emmy Award-winner who has directed and produced doc features and shorts for the acclaimed 30 FOR 30 series. He also serves as senior producer for fellow 2020 documentary LANCE, in Special Events.

  • Erin Leyden
    Past Sundance docs:

    OJ: MADE IN AMERICA (2016)

    Leyden is also a director and producer for ESPN Films, working on the 30 FOR 30 series, as well as its 2013 NINE FOR IX spinoff. She also is senior producer for LANCE.

  • Adam Neuhaus
    Past Sundance docs:

    1979 REVOLUTION GAME (2015, New Frontier Exhibition)

    Neuhaus is Director of Development, ESPN Films and ESPN+ Original Content, and has served as a producer or creative producer for several 30 FOR 30 docs.

Associate Producers:

  • Arthur Sharples

    This is the first Sundance credit for Sharples. He has previously produced for VICE, Discovery, Raw TV, and The Economist.

  • Carolyn Mao

    Mao also makes her Sundance debut with this project. She has a background as a development executive, and previously produced projects for MTV, Sony, and Ford.

Executive Producers:

  • Libby Geist
    Past Sundance docs:

    I AM YUP’IK (2016, short)
    CRAZY LOVE (2007)

    Geist, a three-time Peabody Award winner, is Vice President and Executive Producer, ESPN Films and Original Content. She also serves as executive producer for LANCE.

  • Rob King

    King is Senior Vice President, Original Content for ESPN. He also executive produced LANCE.

  • Connor Schell
    Past Sundance docs:

    UNTUCKED (2014, short)

    Schell is Executive Vice President, Content for ESPN. He also executive produced LANCE.

  • Fergus Haycock

    This is the first Sundance credit for Great Point Media’s Haycock, who focuses on media project financing.


  • Graham Taylor

    This is Taylor’s first Sundance credit.

Assistant Editor:

  • Calif Chong

    This also marks Chong’s first Sundance film.

Why You Should Watch:
While centered on Bruce Lee’s career-defining Hong Kong work, Nguyen draws the viewer backwards and forwards in time to explore the performer’s personal and professional history, with commentary accompanied by evocative archival footage and clips from films and screen tests. What emerges is a compelling – and still relevant – exploration of Hollywood’s resistance to embracing diversity free of stereotypes, and the consequences of this cultural gatekeeping in Lee’s specific case.

More Info:
For Sundance screening dates and times, click the film title in the first paragraph.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Recommendations, Sundance

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