Film Fest: Eric Steel’s “The Bridge”
For one year, a film crew sat with cameras and watched the Golden Gate Bridge. They changed tape every hour. They filmed 23 suicides; missed one and caught on film a man saving a girl from jumping by physically hauling her up by her jacket. And one failed attempt when a boy jumped and survived by landing upright, and then was miraculously kept afloat by a Bay seal until his rescue by the Coast Guard. While watching, the camera crew had their cell phones on speed dial to the bridge authorities, and in doing so foiled six near suicides.
That’s what you learn when you watch The Bridge, a film directed by Eric Steel and shown this afternoon at the Kabuki as part of the SF International Film Fest. My coverage of the ‘fest has been cold this far, but if anything was worth seeing, it was certainly this remarkable film. Being condemned as tragedy tourism and even called ‘an abomination’ by critics, it is by far the most honest, nonjudgemental and purely naked presentation of San Francisco’s biggest dirty little secret. That is, the fact that the Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular suicide destinaiton worldwide, and we have a successful suicide here on average every two weeks.
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The film opens with what is some of the most stunning video I’ve ever seen of the bridge and bay (and the film is full of beauty), but not far into the beginning you realize that the cameras are not watching the scenery, but rather people on the bridge. When I realized this, my heart started to race. It could be anyone, any of the people I’m watching about to jump — and I was going to see it. Every new person I saw became suspicious, and I found myself trying to second guess the motives of each person looking at the view, or talking on their cell phone. Which of course is exactly the anguish the film crew was going through never knowing when, or who; Eric Steel told us in the Q and A afterward that there was no way they could predict who would jump, or not.
Then, the first suicide — the entire theater gasped when an average looking guy hopped up on the orange railing, sat for a minute, and loped off to splash into the water. Next, they interviewed local kite surfers who were there in the water below at that minute, and their mental process around realization, then action, and living with what they saw and how they reacted. Because this film was ultimately just as much about the people surviving (as in those left behind), as it was about the people who killed themselves. A lot of questions were raised, some were not answered. Parents talked about knowing it would happen; then we see the son leap and sail down into the water like a toy. The more the parents and friends spoke, it was easy to see that everyone in the film is really doing the best they can to live with all these unanswered questions. But I think perhaps the biggest unanswered question is why, when they filmed for a continuous year, did only two bystanders lift a finger to stop someone from jumping.
The survivor who got helped by the seal came onstage at the Kabuki afterward in happy tears. In the film, he told the story of his entire process of reaching the point of suicide; and how after standing at the bridge weeping openly for a long time getting ready to jump, a tourist interrupted him to ask if he could take a photo of her. All of the participants in the film, the interviewees/survivors, agreed to be on camera in hopes that their participation might help someone, or at least raise awareness about what goes on here. Yet I think the real story being told is in the background of each horrifying frame when someone jumped: joggers. Walkers. People just keep going. Only two people said, “hey, are you okay?” And even though the point of this film is awareness and fighting to get the GG Bridge authorities to create a suicide barrier, I think that for me the message of this film is the barrier of lonliness and isolation that make all those people going on with their lives turn jumping off a bridge into the easiest answer. Because as one woman in the film put it, we’re all just a step away from understanding and relating to the urge to obliterate ourselves. It’s just that most of us also have the very next thought, where *sigh* tomorrow is another day, and the sun comes up again.
This is a very controversial film. It’s strong and intense, and I’m glad SFIFF showed it. It opened last thursday in New York, got a hugely hateful response, and was shown to family members and survivors of the film’s suicides only this morning. Many were in the audience for the SFIFF screening. If you have a chance to see it, you should. It’s part of our culture here — an example of what I mean is seen when one father in the film said that when he got the call from Marin General that his son had jumped off the bridge, he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I know what that means.”
Images: protesters held signs outside the Kabuki this afternoon.
Update: It has been brought to my attention that this post is being read by suicide researchers, so I uploaded audio from the first ten minutes of questions in the Q & A with director Eric Steel, directly after the film screened in San Francisco for the first time. He answers some very difficult questions, and I cut it off when someone asks a technical question about the cameras.
Listen: Q & A with director Eric Steel (MP3)