by Greg Call
I see the Golden Gate Bridge almost every single day, but I see it differently now than I did a few years ago. In October 2003, the month I moved to the Bay Area, I read an article in the New Yorker that discussed the Golden Gate bridge’s relentless attraction of the suicidal. Because Golden Gate Bridge jumpers are not reported by the media, it was mildly shocking to learn of the sheer numbers of suicides that occur there, year after year. I wondered Who? How? And most fundamentally, Why?
In January 2004, an amateur filmmaker in Manhattan named Eric Steel read the same New Yorker article I read, and then flew out to California to explore these questions. He got a permit (under somewhat questionable pretenses), and set up wide angle cameras facing the the Bridge to film during daylight hours. He also enlisted shooters to man a handheld outfitted with a powerful telephoto lens and film folks — tourists, mostly — crossing the Bridge day in and day out. Over the course of the year, 24 people jumped off the Bridge, and Steel’s cameras caught most of them. For many, all that was recorded was a wide angle shot showing a blur of a body and a splash. Others, however, are shown walking along the Bridge, like all the other tourists, then approaching the four foot guardrail, casually hopping over it to the ledge on the other side, and jumping into oblivion, 225 feet below.
Steel’s documentary based on the footage, entitled The Bridge, is haunting, quite literally. There are images that I don’t think will be erased from my mind for a long time. But this isn’t Faces Of Death. We learn of the individuals whose demise we’ve witnessed. We hear from their families and friends; we read their suicide notes.This may all sound morbidly voyeuristic, but Steel generally does a good job avoiding the overwrought and maudlin (though one audio effect is a notable exception here).
In the press materials, Steel takes moral cover from his inevitable detractors by saying he is trying to start a dialogue about a suicide barrier (a perennial non-starter in San Francisco). But I donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t think he needs an alibi. First, Steel and his camera operators did make calls to law enforcement when they saw someone who looked like they were going to jump, and thereby prevented several suicides (some of which are also caught on tape). The jumpers shown were either not observably suicidal, or simply acted too fast. At a recent screening, Steel talks about the difficulty of prevention: “From the first day when we were watching, there were so many people that made us concerned. We couldn’t hear them talk, we weren’t experts at deciphering body language. We saw hundreds of people crying, we saw dozens of people pulling their hair and mumbling to themselves. Those people never jumped. The first person I saw jump was in jogging clothes. He had run out onto the bridge and was laughing on his cellphone. He hung up his phone, took off his sunglasses and jumped in a matter of seconds. It was impossible to tell when it was actually going to happen.”
Second, and more importantly, the footage is used in the service of an ultimately empathetic and humane film. There is no slow-motion or torturous replays. There are no teasing buildups or gratuitous schocks. Suicide, even in this spectacular setting, is not romanticized. Steel simply shows us one year in the life of an impossibly attractive suicide magnet, and the back stories of those that chose to end their lives there.
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The Bridge opens today in SF, LA, and NYC. Here’s the official website that lists other openings.