The Bridge (2006)

Producer/Director: Eric Steel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I read the synopsis of The Bridge in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival program guide, I experienced an instant revulsion. “More people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world,” it said. There would be actual footage of people jumping into the swift, deep waters below. The hubby went to see it. I did not. Yet, yesterday, when it showed up on IFC, I found myself sampling it, then really watching it—all the way to the bitter end.

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My reluctance had to do with wanting to respect the privacy I think a person’s last moments deserve, as well as a sensitivity because I have had a suicide in my family that was very traumatic for me. I am also aware of feeling a certain distaste for the ghoulish aspects of capturing an actual suicide on film, while at the same time finding such footage riveting. It’s like slowing down on the road to look at a crashed car; something in us wants to have an encounter with death. Maybe we really do have a death instinct, as Freud suggested. There is no doubt that as surely as we are given life, that life will end, and we have the dubious advantage of knowing this inevitable fact. Most of us contemplate death, try to understand it and come to terms with our own mortality. Some of us have suicidal thoughts in times of desperation. Most of us want to live, fight to live when death is near. How is it that people—many of them in the prime of life—choose, finally, to give up that fight? And why do so many of them choose to do it in broad daylight on a very populated bridge?

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Producer/director Eric Steel was inspired to make this film after reading Tad Friend’s The New Yorker article, “Jumpers.” He lied to the Bridge District authorities about the purpose of his project—supposedly to capture stock footage of one of the great wonders of the world—and spent all of 2004 filming the bridge. He set up fixed cameras on either side of the bridge for panoramic views and used DV handheld cameras with telephoto lenses to film activity on the bridge. Film crews were equipped with cellphones that had the Bridge Patrol number entered into speed dial. Whenever they observed the warning signs described in Friend’s article that someone might be ready to jump, they hit that speed dial. Some people were saved this way, but some people moved too swiftly or defied their powers of detection. A total of 24 people made the jump: 23 were captured on film.

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The Golden Gate Bridge is a mesmerizing sight at any time, its seemingly delicate lines contrasted with strong vertical towers, and set in a breathtaking natural landscape. When the frequent fogs that visit San Francisco roll in, the bridge seems to float like a heavenly structure in Mount Olympus. There is a romance to the bridge; indeed, San Francisco is considered one of the most romantic destinations in the United States and is a favorite among honeymooners. Thousands of tourists and residents alike walk the bridge each year, admiring its marvelous form and gazing out to the surrounding vistas of water and hillsides. It is not farfetched to believe that jumpers choose the bridge because of the physical beauty that will be their last sight, the desire to make their deaths somewhat poetic, and, of course, the knowledge that their suicide attempt will almost certainly succeed.

The idea of the romance of the bridge fills a friend of a jumper nicknamed Ruby with rage. Photographed in an identity-protecting shadow, she speaks through tears of her attempts to help her severely depressed friend cope. She speaks of giving him some antidepressants she couldn’t finish taking because they kept her awake. Expressing a thought she finds shameful and that she clearly has obsessed about in the months following Ruby’s death, she says she didn’t want anyone to find her name on the prescription bottle if they came snooping around his apartment—already she feels his death may be inevitable—and she therefore put the pills in a plain, white envelope. She speaks of her last night with Ruby, an outing to a movie during which he sobbed uncontrollably; a conversation about suicide and his various options, which she tried logically to dismiss as “being unfair to the landlord” and other subterfuges; and finally, a refusal to let him come home with her to talk in order to respect his space and his free will as an adult. This “respect” will haunt her the rest of her life, and she vows she will never do it again if a similar situation should face her.

An extremely poignant interview, held in full view for the cameras, is of a couple talking about the suicide of their son. They are plain-spoken about his difficulties and the events on the day of his death. Their words and voices are calm, but they look stunned, like deer caught in headlights. The mother wonders what she did to make him so unhappy, repeating the wrong and misogynistic notion that mothers are to blame for their children’s unhappiness. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her.

Various survivors express anger, exasperation at the “cry wolf” aspects of their friends’ frequent and lifelong threats, and helplessness. One woman, aware of the enormous pain her loved one was in, admonished him to promise to say good-bye and to put her name and phone number in a plastic bag and carry it on his person so that she would at least know what had happened. Others, remembering how their friend was always upbeat and the life of the party, mused that if it could happen to him, it could happen to just about anyone.

One miracle man who survived his jump talked about his mental instability and about his attempt. He said he stood on the bridge for some time, crying uncontrollably. Some people stopped to see if he was all right, but most walked by without a word, which he might have perceived as uncaring but probably stemmed more from embarrassment and a desire not to intrude. The last straw for him was a woman with an accent, “German, I think,” asking him to take her picture. He did, and thinking about how she hadn’t even noticed his tears, thought “nobody cares” and jumped. This is the kind of impulsiveness that often causes an ill person to attempt suicide even when he or she may still feel uncertain. “As soon as I let go, I knew I didn’t want to die.” He talked about what he thought might save him—going in feet first. In the four seconds it took for him to hit the water, he turned and landed in a half-sitting position. He shattered two lower vertebrae, but the bone fragments missed his heart. He now has to stick to a rigid routine of meds, meals, and sleep. “It’s a hard life for a 24 year old,” his father says.

This survivor provides a valuable window into what “happened” to these sad people—mental illness. Seriously suicidal people are physically ill—very ill. They can’t just snap out of it. They frequently become marginal individuals, unable to sustain loving relationships, hold down a job, or perform day-to-day tasks. As one jumper wrote (and we see the actual scribblings), “I was voted ‘most likely to success.’ What the fuck happened?” and “I’m a fuck-up. I’m a loser.” I used to see people like him on my bus ride home from my job loitering outside of nursing homes and halfway houses, a somewhat scary-looking lot who actually didn’t do much of anything, let alone harm anyone. They are the people who well-meaning, but misguided liberals concerned about individual rights had released from these community institutions to mainstream into society during the 1970s. They’re the people the insurance companies had refused for decades to insure and that mentally well individuals scorn, apparently not viewing one’s brain as a part of one’s body. Lacking the funds for proper treatment, many self-medicate with alcohol or cheap drugs like crack cocaine.

The pain of the surviving families is difficult to watch. But it is the actual, filmed suicides that are so hypnotic and haunting. We see one man in a gray sweatsuit and white running shoes pace energetically, talking animatedly on his cellphone. Before you know it, he has climbed up and sat down on the wide rail, crossed himself, and let go. Another man bolts quickly over the rail and runs off the side, as though he didn’t want to think about it in case he might change his mind. One woman climbs down onto a platform. A man with a camera starts photographing her, aware that she’s probably going to jump but distanced from her by the camera. He compares his actions to what war photographers go through, witnessing horror but somehow unable to intervene. Fortunately he “woke up.” Steel’s cameras capture him reaching over the rail, grabbing the slightly built woman by her hoody, and dragging her back to safety and the waiting Bridge Patrol vehicle.

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Cut in throughout the film is a man with beautiful, waist-length, black hair blowing in the wind as he walks up and back across the span. He stops frequently, gazes out, lays his hands on the rail. The crew said he looked like someone just appreciating the beauty of the bridge and the scenery. He got off the bridge at one point and sat in a park at one end. The film crew was completely fooled. We, however, watch this man, fairly certain that he will jump because he’s in the film. I found myself both waiting expectantly for it to happen and dreading it. When he finally does it, the image is as beautiful and haunting as the bridge itself, a perfect symbol for the lost souls who fly to their doom.

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The deadly seduction of the bridge affects not only the jumpers but, apparently, the Bridge District as well. For years they have fought putting up a suicide barrier, though they have set up barriers to prevent head-on collisions and pedestrian traffic accidents. These, according to Steel, were almost nonexistent problems before the barriers were erected. By contrast, an average of 20 people a year jump to their deaths from the easily breachable bridge. Why is the Bridge District so recalcitrant about suicide barriers? Cost was mentioned, but the other barriers cost as much to erect. I think it has to do with not wanting to mar the aesthetics of the bridge. Announcement that The Bridge was going to screen in several cities finally forced the Bridge District to get serious about doing a feasibility study, but it may still be years before barriers go up.

The Bridge takes a brutally unblinking look at suicide and the plight of the mentally ill that our society must grapple with. The beautiful shooting by San Francisco DP Peter McCandless and the sensitive direction of Steel make this the perfect vehicle for beginning this conversation.

The official website for The Bridge contains much useful information. I recommend a visit.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    7th/02/2009 to 3:43 pm

    I came away from The Bridge thinking that if I had to kill myself, falling backwards off a very high bridge over water would be the way to do it. But the film demonstrates how difficult it is to commit suicide. The people who end up paying a toll are those who cannot protect emotionally disturbed loved ones 24 hours a day. This was a tough subject for a documentary, but I think the director pulled it off considerably well.
    Good pick, Marilyn. I’d love it if you wrote about nothing but documentaries for a month.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    7th/02/2009 to 3:50 pm

    I really enjoyed your look at The Bridge, Marilyn. I watched the film a few months ago and found it fascinating as well as disturbing. It was also a strangely beautiful and compelling film.
    As a Bay Area resident I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity of actually seeing a bridge suicide while sitting in a passing car and it’s haunted me ever since. I didn’t see the actual jump, I only saw a man dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase standing awfully close to the rails. When I turned my head away he jumped and when I looked back only a briefcase sat next to the bridge rail. I found out later while watching the news that a man matching the one I saw had jumped and left only his briefcase behind. Since I’ve had my own bouts with serious depression, I really wish I could have spoken to the man or at least made some attempt to help him.
    I have mixed feelings about the addition of the so-called “suicide barriers” to the bridge. Naturally if it will save some lives I’m for it but I also think that if a person is really desperate, that they’ll find another way to kill themselves besides jumping off the bridge. The money might be better spent by putting the funds into education about mental illness as well as into local facilities that are helping people with serious mental health issues, etc. As wealthy as the Bay Area is, our local hospitals and clinics are in really bad shape.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/02/2009 to 4:17 pm

    Thanks, Joe. I’m a frequent sampler of docs, as you know. I promise if not to write exclusively about them, then to up the number I do write about.
    Kimberly – What a horrible experience for you. I only saw the film, and I feel haunted. I read about a special program for train engineers who have “assisted” suicides; they are torn up so much by the experience, probably something like you experienced, only worse (and I knew someone who killed herself this way and somehow can’t forgive her choice to bring someone else into it and scar him).
    Unfortunately, suicide is not an uncommon event at all. It has touched my life a number of times, ironically saving my life because I realized that my chronic depression was a much more serious illness than I realized and pushing me to get help and go on to a happy and productive life.
    Finally, mental health has reached parity in the insurance world, but local outreach in most places couldn’t be in more dire straits financially. I realize that if someone really wants to kill themselves, they’ll find a way, but consider the young man in the film who miraculously survived his jump. I honestly believe that if he hadn’t had that experience with the tourist, he might not have jumped. It was the “evidence” that “nobody cares” that drove him over the edge. Who knows how many people might not have jumped had there been barriers to prevent it. You might survive an overdose – you’re almost assured of not surviving a jump off the bridge.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 8:10 am

    Did the film-makers get releases from their subjects? I mean the ones who committed suicide. I’m just asking, because I wouldn’t want anyone clandestinely filming my death, would you?

  • bill r. spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 8:37 am

    Rick, I don’t mean to sound cold, but given that these people chose the Golden Gate Bridge — a national landmark, tourist trap, and haven for shutterbugs — as their spot, they wouldn’t really have an argument against being filmed or photographed.
    I saw this film several months ago, and found it unbelievable moving, and unlike anything else I’d ever seen before. But you said something, Marilyn, that really struck a chord, though it is maybe only tangentially related to the film:
    We, however, watch this man, fairly certain that he will jump because he’s in the film. I found myself both waiting expectantly for it to happen and dreading it
    Me too, and the “waiting expectantly” part made me very uncomfortable. I don’t blame the filmmakers for that feeling, but rather myself. I don’t know quite how to define my discomfort, or why I don’t blame the filmmakers (who, after all, edited this footage in such a way as to BUILD the expectation), but feelings of suspense, in this context, strike me as utterly wrong.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 9:38 am

    Bill – It is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that I felt needed to be acknowledged. That’s why I mentioned the death instinct stuff at the front of the article. I do think we are all morbid, even cruel, given the right circumstances (and perhaps this is why so many people disliked Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky–she didn’t seem real) and one of the reasons horror movies are so incredibly popular. I remember going to a renaissance fair in which a player was standing on a ledge pining for the love of a woman. Several young men on the ground with me kept yelling “Jump, jump, jump.” It was a moment I’ve never forgotten because it seemed so incredibly mean.
    Rick – It can’t matter to them now.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 9:46 am

    Great review. I’ve had this in my queue for as long as I can remember. It finally got mailed about three months ago… and I didn’t watch it. I sent it back, unwatched. Now it’s in the queue again. I don’t know why. I want to see it, and I don’t want to see it.
    For years people really did believe you could “snap out” of a depression. My mother takes medication for it, I’ve got it and my wife attempted suicide about 10 years ago. All three of us suffer from it and it’s physical. I’m glad more and more people are finally realizing that. Taking medication that gets the brain chemistry in line can make one hell of a difference.
    With Rick’s question, I’m assuming the families signed a release, yes, but I can’t be sure.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 9:59 am

    I couldn’t find information on releases. The official site says the families were supportive, but nothing beyond that. I don’t know what the legalities of it are anyway.

  • bill r. spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 12:25 pm

    I do think we are all morbid, even cruel, given the right circumstances…and one of the reasons horror movies are so incredibly popular.
    Boy, that’s a whole different topic. But since I think you’re referring to a specific kind of horror film, and you did say “one of the reasons”, all I’ll say is that I agree with you.
    But while I’ll cop to “morbid”, I’m not cruel or mean (honest, I’m not), and seeing REAL footage of a REAL person ACTUALLY dying doesn’t turn my crank, so why should I be, in a sense, on the edge of my seat for that last suicide? Should I resent the filmmakers for that, or myself? And then again, I DID rent this film, knowing what it was.
    Hm. Maybe I’m a terrible person after all…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 1:09 pm

    Bill – I don’t have The Answer with regard to the attractions of this film, but I do think our shared fate makes us “morbidly” curious in why, where, and how people die. We’re looking for something, I think, if only the opportunity to replay the scene over and over until it loses some power. How else can we cope with our knowledge of and terror toward our own death?

  • bill r. spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 2:16 pm

    We’re looking for something, I think, if only the opportunity to replay the scene over and over until it loses some power. How else can we cope with our knowledge of and terror toward our own death?
    Maybe, but if that’s the case, it’s not working for me.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 2:19 pm

    I’m not saying it works, but it’s something I know I strive for.

  • bill r. spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 2:45 pm

    Don’t we all. You know what doesn’t help? Reading a lot of Philip Roth, as I am currently doing (although, to be fair, that doesn’t exacerbate the problem quite as much as I thought it would, I guess because he’s as far gone on the topic as I am — maybe further gone — so I at least feel some kinship with him).

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 8:01 am

    Bill, good point about choosing a landmark to do it.
    But Marilyn, “it can’t matter to them now” was not my point, which was admittedly not stated clearly. Of course it doesn’t matter to them now. But I don’t find exploitation any more palatable if it is of poor, sick people who kill themselves than I do of Appalachian holler dwellers.
    (sorry about getting back to this so late)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 8:48 am

    Rick – I really don’t believe this is exploitation. I think this film creates a hard-to-create space for us to consider suicide, mental health, what we do and don’t do to protect the mentally ill, and what suicide does to loved ones. It’s a fine line, I realize, but somehow Steel and Co. pull it off.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 3:07 pm

    The film sounds very compelling, but no matter what the filmmakers do to mitigate the voyeuristic aspect of what they’re doing, it’s still there. I don’t think I could watch it, personally – not because of an emotional revulsion; I’m as morbid as the next guy and could probably watch stuff like this all day, but because of an intellectual one – I simply find it unethical. But I acknowledge that this is an ambiguous matter, and more or less up to the individual viewer to assess. At any rate, you’ve written an excellent and very compassionate review.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 4:33 pm

    Thanks for your comments, MovieMan. Sometimes I wonder whether we haven’t given voyeurism a bum rap. If I have to choose the lesser of two supposed evils, I’ll choose filming bridge suicides. We can’t pretend they don’t happen, and we can’t pretend that the Bridge District is doing everything it can to prevent them. We are witnesses to a preventable catastrophe, and I do think that being disturbed by these images is an important step toward doing something. Is it exploitative or voyeuristic to photograph children being forced to hook on the street, or war dead? This is the stuff of many, many documentaries. It seems the taboo against suicide is the one that seems the ethical challenge. That seems like a double-standard to me.

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