Film Fest: Eric Steel’s “The Bridge”

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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.

notwanted.jpg* * * * * * *

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.

sfiffamc.jpgThe 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.

snuff.jpgThis 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)

19 Comments so far

  1. cd (unregistered) on May 1st, 2006 @ 3:14 am

    It’s good to read a San Franciscan’s take on the film. I read a warmer review of it (in the Chron I think) than the ones you’ve read that were a lot more negative. I’m still not sure if I want to see the film or not.

    I watched the preview online and given the pause taken by a few people shown there as they waiver on the wrong side of the fence, one does wonder why the dozens of people passing those persons as they climb over the rail don’t, like, say something. I can understand if it happens rather quickly that it would seem impossible to someone – even from a few feet away – after all, most people wouln’t jump off a bridge so seeing someone prepare to do so would certain be difficult to deal with.

    I recall, also, reading a while back about why people can get mugged in broad daylight on a New York City street, but passers-by on lonely roads usually stop to aid an overturned car. It’s sort of a mob-mentality, groupthink situation – if you’re around other people, you figure SOMEONE will do something (either someone more qualified, or simply someone not you). If you know you’re the only one who can help, you do.

    I’m not sure if that explains the bridge situation, but I’m sure it’s part of it.

    But to say such things are frightening realities is an understatement.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review, Violet.


  2. Addy (unregistered) on May 1st, 2006 @ 1:07 pm

    I’m glad you saw this film and wrote such a thoughtful review of it.
    I’m not going to be able to see it tho, just your review of it brought me to tears – I know that sitting thru the film would rock me too hard.

    Maybe I’m just being chicken but I’m pissed that this world can be so harsh and I feel powerless to help. Seeing people jump to their deaths is not something that I see as helping me with that.

    Thoughts?


  3. violet (unregistered) on May 1st, 2006 @ 1:29 pm

    Addy and CD, thank you. Seeing people jump to their deaths isn’t going to be something helpful, constructive or good for a lot of people; I think that’s why this film is so controversial, brave, and raises so many questions. I think the questions here — and there are many, and not as many answerable ones as we’d like — must be individuated. What I’m saying is that this film isn’t for everyone the same way one kind of answer can’t apply to every one of life’s hard questions. We all have to figure out our own way though this stuff. And that’s not easy. For some people, seeing this film is a huge wake-up call. For others, an outrage. Even more know that seeing it will be too much for them, and that’s okay too.

    The problen is that we get so many messages that there are “take a pill” or “press a button” blanket answers to all of our problems. When the truth is quite different.

    In the meantime, the media has looked the other way in regards to the suicide stats here in SF. This film did accomplish its primary goal: to raise awareness about these suicides, and the complex mental health issues that surround suicide. Could this awareness-raising have been done differently? I don’t know.

    It sucks that this happens every two weeks from our beautiful bridge. Seeing the harsh reality — like the Abu Ghraib photos — isn’t something everyone should see. Or wants to see: I know the pain of losing someone to suicide and personal contemplation as well — I didn’t need to see it to understand how profoundly sad and painful this is. But it needs to be seen, by someone. The people who jump off the bridge already feel invisible enough; now at least they are a little less so.


  4. sfmike (unregistered) on May 2nd, 2006 @ 6:16 pm

    I have a deceased friend who was one of the “stars,” so to speak, of the film so I probably won’t be seeing it.

    If somebody wants to take their own life, I believe it’s their right. However, with the Golden Gate Bridge jumpers, there seems to be a strong element of the Drama Queen at work. “Goodbye, cruel world,” for real. My friend wanted to get out of here because there were too many demons in his head, but he was most definitely a Drama Queen. I’m almost glad his final appearance was caught on film.

    And I love the Bay seal rescue story. How cool that you got to meet the young survivor.


  5. Rick Peters (unregistered) on May 3rd, 2006 @ 8:13 pm

    I am 38 years old and have lived near the goldengate bridge my entire life.I have walked across the bridge a handfull of times and i have driven across it at least a thousand times,every time that orange beauty comes in to view i can not stop looking at it,as if it was the first time seeing it.I can actually say i love that bridge.I do not mean any disrespect to the family’s who lost loved one’s,but putting a barrier up will not stop people from killing them selves.they will just go somewhere else and do it.I have had to deal with a family member commiting suicide,and also a friend.I do know what it’s like to go through the aftermath.If someone is going to take there life they will do it anywhere.Building a bridge barrier will only take away from the beauty of the bridge.

    Rick Peters


  6. PK HINES (unregistered) on May 4th, 2006 @ 9:16 pm

    To Rick Peters and the rest of the Rick Peters in the World. Contrary to your view a barrier will stop people from killing themsselves at the Golden Gate Bridge current the worlds favorite spot for suicide.

    Please take a moment and think through the logic. The Golden Gate Bridge is like a loaded gun in a psychiatric ward.

    No Rick you are very wrong and you are disrespectful to the families that have been devistated by the death of their loved ones at the Golden Gate.

    And by the way – if beauty is your only cause for opposition then lets not put up a barrier, lets close the walkway.


  7. kat (unregistered) on May 5th, 2006 @ 3:03 pm

    Rick,
    Do you know what is the price payed so far so people like you can enjoy the beauty of the bridge?
    More than 1300 lives!!!

    The Empire State Building and the Eifel Tower have barriers. They were put up after just few jumps…

    I hope that next time you are driving or walking on the bridge your veiw gets blurred by the tought that someone may be jumping or ready to jum off at that same time. I hope that at that time you turn your head to the sides of the bridge and look/think if there’s anything you can do to save a life…or at least to smile and let them know that we, people in the Bay Area, care…

    Enjoy the view!!


  8. jim jones (unregistered) on May 6th, 2006 @ 5:42 am

    If people want t jump off the bridge. I say good,

    good riddens, let them.


  9. Sean (unregistered) on May 6th, 2006 @ 8:21 am

    I lived in San Francisco for 12 years. My father killed himself in San Francisco (different spot) but near the water. I recently went through my own “emotional inferno” and following in my father’s footsteps attempted 3 times to kill myself. My life has had its share of trajedy and suicide was a part of it. However, a film about the bridge jumpers did not alarm me at all. Why do people rush into so much judgment about people who are just showing the facts? Look at the news, we get killings and murders both in Iraq and in Urban America every hour of the day. Do people go out and picket the newstations? The moral value in showing people the truth as long as it is objective and nonjudgmental is what America is all about. Kevin Sites has his stories in Iraq. Steven Silverberg has his illustration of Munich in the 70′s. And now The Bridge Director allows us not only to see the truth in the terrible reality and sadness of people who kill themselves but also the terrible apathy and indifference of those who live so close to the world’s suicide beacon. San Francisco should place barriers to prevent this just like New York did in the 30′s on the Empire State Building. It frustrates me to no end that people can’t see past their own artificial sense of rightness when it comes to telling the truth about a long standing but often untalked about painful tradition. People did not want to come out about the pain in the Catholic church molestation and years of trajedy occurred. Wouldn’t you have wanted a film director with a speed dial to call the authorities to prevent these crimes too? Thank you for doing this movie. As a generational suicide survivor in my 30′s I am grateful to those strong souls who examine the modern melancholy of sucidal choices, whether documenting crack addicts in back alleys or God forbid, “normal looking” people jumping to their deaths. If you’ve never struggled with and attmepted suicide this film should help you empathize,—any other reaction is just pure, unadulterated ignorance.

    Sean


  10. sebastian (unregistered) on May 6th, 2006 @ 8:25 am

    The 23 people depicted in this movie are 23 people that this “film” crew didn’t save because they were too busy filming. I think it’s a sad state when we are seeing films of actual people dying soley to make a point of saying “hey people, these poor souls committed suicide, and we are going to show you their story…and their jumps.” The film could’ve made the same point even if the film crews had radios and called authorities, notified them of potential jumpers, then intervene and do a story about why they were going to jump. 23 lives for some ticket sales.


  11. Jason D- (unregistered) on May 6th, 2006 @ 11:40 am

    I highly recommend this Sparkletack episode as supplemental listening.

    Jim Jones, you’re a twat. And Sebastian, the crew stopped six suicides. How many have you stopped?


  12. william riordan (unregistered) on May 7th, 2006 @ 12:26 am

    How can the people who are in charge of the bridge continue to ignore the deaths at their hands ?

    How can the electorate and the elected officials not call the bridge board to task?

    The Bridge Board and our elected officials are just like the people in “the Bridge” that just walk by and do nothing … only one person reached out in the movie to stop a suicide jumper.

    Why cant our Mayor or supervisors – senators or representatives do the same ?

    How can this go on in a civilised society ?


  13. James Ignatious (unregistered) on May 7th, 2006 @ 12:34 am

    To Jim Jones

    Your comment is indicative of your debased educational moral and mental state. I doubt that you even have the courage to use your real name.

    Hide behind a phony name and throw foul commentary that denegrates the lives of so many souls who ended their lives at the Golden Gate.

    But if you will you are the real tragedy.

    Our society missed its opportunity to educate you and clearly those responsible for your maturation were unable to teach you even the most base of morals.

    You have voided your right to be considered a human and sadly I am sure that you will – until the day you die suffer the consequences of your ignorance.


  14. Iliana (unregistered) on May 9th, 2006 @ 6:06 pm

    hey i am really interested in seeing this movie but, i have no clue how…can you help me out here?


  15. violet (unregistered) on May 9th, 2006 @ 7:19 pm

    well, I know that IFC has the film’s rights:

    http://www.ifctv.com

    but I’m not sure exactly what will happen with it; this article says it will air on their cable channel this fall:

    http://www.tv.com/story/story.html&story_id=4115


  16. Lucreta (unregistered) on May 11th, 2006 @ 9:20 am

    I haven’t seen the film & Im looking for a film trailer, but in any case it is about time, documentary film are heading in this direction. We need more films like these. Raw emotions, human desparity, the human spirit in crisis. I fully support this film & other films to come like it. Props to the director! This film is one of my fave. of all time!


  17. LUCRETA (unregistered) on May 11th, 2006 @ 9:29 am

    ok, for all of you proposing a “bridge barrier”, that is just ludicrous! are you kidding me? I stand by RICK PETER’s comments, that determined people will commit suicide with or without the “bridge barrier”. They will definitely find another way of killing themselves. A bridge barrier is not a deterrant, its just another obstacle a potential suicide person will hurdle. Also, a bridge barrier would definitely take away the beauty of a bridge! Come on! let’s be realistic! suicidal people are mentally whacked out to begin with, why should the rest of the “non-suicidal” public have to pay the price & accomodate their mental anguish. TOTALLY RIDICULOUS!


  18. robert wills (unregistered) on May 14th, 2006 @ 10:01 pm

    Lucreta,

    98% of those who attempt suicide if stopped never try it again – this has been documented again and again most recently by a study done at UCSF.

    Suicide is a permante solution to a temporary problem those that commit sucide are usually at the lowest point their life and lack the capacity to make a rational decision because they are mentally ill.

    The Golden Gate Bridge is like putting a loaded gun in a Psych Ward.

    But fine – dont build a barrier – which by the way has already been designed is workable and actually enhances the beauty of the bridge – a cheaper and frankly better soulion is to CLOSE THE WALKWAY.

    2 DIE AT THE BRIDGE A MONTH AND APROXIMATELY 25 DIE THERE A YEAR – 1,500 TO DATE.

    The Golden Gate Bridge has become the World’s suicide center – and there is blood on the hands of the bridge directorate – the elected officials who put them there and the electorate and frankly people like you Lucreta who lack not only education but also the morality to end deaths occuring at your hands.


  19. Kevin Lee (unregistered) on May 19th, 2006 @ 2:36 pm

    First, I’m glad to have stumbled upon this discussion. I have not seen the movie, but just viewing the facts and stories and arguments have made this post an engaging (if not sobering) read, and have stimulated my interest in the movie.

    I am willing to give the film directors and producers the benefit of the doubt, that they could not have predicted who was going to commit suicide and who was not. It is difficult for me to believe that people would consciously ignore potential jumpers (such as those people who sit on the railing…you can enjoy the view in such a manner as to not tempt death).

    I find the argument on both sides extremely fascinating. There are those who believe that a barrer should be erected in order to prevent such suicides and eliminate a potentially dangerous situation (a “loaded gun” situation). Others counter that people will commit suicide regardless of the venue, and moreover that there is no preventing an individual’s life choices. Yet others believe that the bridge should be left as is, in all its physical and symbolic grandeur.

    I like the comment by the poster Robert Wills who asserts that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I would like to think that those who commited suicide, while problem-ridden, would most likely not have taken such action had they taken a few days time to clear their heads (i.e. the individual who attempted suicide, and cried “tears of joy” upon speaking at the film’s screening). Hence, more often than not, suicide is a misguided act.

    At the same time, we cannot shut down the means to suicide. In a world with kitchen knives and sleeping pills and SUVs, there is no way to thoroughly eliminate everyday means to suicide. It’s impossible.

    The fact that the Golden Gate Bridge is so physically and symbolically grand might add to the “flair” and “drama” of a suicide. Yet people, if emotionally and physically detached, will still find ways to commit suicide absent “flair” and “drama.” “Flair” and “drama” may not be apparent in the act, but the act will still exist. Hell, people might attempt to drive cars through the barriers and hurt more people, if determined enough.

    It’s an extremely controversial and difficult debate. I lean VERY SLIGHTLY on not erecting barriers for the Bridge, and not for the reasons of Rick Peters, who claims that barriers would disrupt the beauty of the bridge (an argument which is, quite frankly, a little unsettling). People, in a misguided state of mind or not, are willing to go through such an act regardless of the means. The Golden Gate Bridge provides an “exotic” means to suicide. Shutting down the Golden Gate would most likely result in a change in the “exotic” means of suicide (perhaps a building in the Financial District, or maybe simply stopping a car and going off the Bay Bridge). Shutting down the means is a secondhand solution to prevention. We need to focus on helping and caring for people first.

    That being said, I think everyone should see this movie, not for the sheer “thrill” factor of suicide or the film’s seemingly cruel exploitation of suicide victims and their families, but for the greater, profoundly human factor. This film can serve as awareness for a cruel truth and exactly how pervasive it is. Once we understand that truth more thoroughly, we can act in ways to help counteract it.

    Thanks for the post, Violet.
    -K



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