Haunting documentary confronts suicide head-on
Directed by Eric Steel
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most iconic structures in the world. It is a wonder of modern engineering, a prime tourist destination and a symbol of the City by the Bay. It is also the most popular suicide spot on the planet.
Filmmaker Eric Steel’s startling and sensitive film The Bridge chronicles a year in the life of the Golden Gate Bridge. For 12 months, Steel stationed two cameramen, one at either end of the bridge. They filmed the nearly 9,000-foot span from dusk to dawn. Twenty-two people jumped to their deaths that year.
Initially, Steel’s concept seems like a grim and sensationalist one. But his purpose is not simply to capture unsettling snuff footage. Instead, he wants to lay bare the topic of suicide. (In case you’re wondering, Steel and his cameramen were not dispassionate observers. They did call police the instant someone stepped over the bridge’s railing and saved at least six people over the course of the year.) From its eerie yet elegant footage of bodies tumbling into the water to its contextual interviews with friends, families and shocked observers, The Bridge attempts to uncover the whys and wherefores of this most final of decisions.
Suicide is not a subject that gets brought up much in polite conversation in this country. For this reason alone, Steel’s documentary is something of a rarity. Suicide still bears a strong stigma in Western civilization. On the one hand, this stigma helps steer people away from it. On the other hand, it limits discussion of the subject. In one telling interview, a man talking about his sister’s death comes up with several conspiracy theories, but refuses to admit that she committed suicide. (An odd conclusion, given that his sister’s death was captured on film.) Moments later, his other sister puts it in perspective: He is a good Christian and believes that suicide is a sin. Unable to accept the theological outcome of his sister’s suicide, he simply denies it. Sadly, this also means he’s denying all the underlying problems that brought his sister to that tragic moment.
More compelling, maybe, even than the people whose deaths are profiled are the survivors who have been left behind. Proving contrary to the myth that suicide victims are alone and unloved, The Bridge provides plenty of friends and family members who are struggling to deal with the loss of their loved ones.
In virtually every death, mental illness is uprooted as the underlying theme. Difficult as coping with mental illness is for those who suffer from it, the frustration friends and family members feel seems even more amplified. It is this heavy emotional burden--spanning the range from sadness to anger to resignation--that provides the film’s most elegant argument against suicide.
Suicide is among the most private acts one can commit. And yet, the people profiled here have chosen (after much contemplation it would seem) to do it on one of the most spectacular and public venues in the world. (One interviewee even likens choosing a suicide spot to “finding a college to attend.”) Since the deaths in question take place in full daylight on the gleaming Mecca that is the Golden Gate Bridge, the film seems seems somehow less voyeuristic.
Admittedly, it is a bit unsettling watching someone kill themselves in front of your eyes. Some people deliberate for hours, peering into the cold water 220 feet below. Others simply swing their legs over the railing and step into oblivion--a matter of seconds. Several deaths are captured on camera as nothing more than insignificant white splashes in the water alongside the bridge’s towering pylons. The Bridge is an unflinching portrait. It neither celebrates, nor looks away from these tragedies. While The Bridge never trivializes the loss of life, it does make death seem ... well, easy isn’t quite the right word.
This isn’t what you’d call a cheerful film, but you may be surprised at how comfortable you are with it all by the end. Clearly, suicide and mental illness aren’t going to go away if we simply stop talking about them. For its honesty and bravery in confronting these topics, The Bridge deserves some serious consideration.