Producer/Director: Eric Steel
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.
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?
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.
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 work 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.
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.
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.