What makes someone take their own life and what does the end look like? Eric Steel tried to find out.
Eric Steel wanted to explore one of western society’s last taboos: suicide. Now he has been attacked for including footage of people jumping to their deaths off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in his extraordinary debut documentary, The Bridge.
His detractors claim that at best the film is voyeuristic and exploitative, at worst that it is a snuff movie. Steel, who trained two cameras on the iconic structure throughout the whole of 2004, says he would have felt “dishonest” if he had not included the footage. “It was something that I witnessed. Something other people witnessed. That was being witnessed all the time with great regularity.”
The frequency is indeed shocking. Not only is the GGB reportedly the most photographed monument in the world, it is ironically also the most popular location for committing suicide. Twenty four people took the fatal plunge in 2004, while the overall total since the bridge opened in 1937 is over 1300. All the deaths Steel filmed took place in broad daylight and, for the most part, in plain view of other people. That they happened in public persuaded him that he was not doing anything unethical.
“It really is about bearing witness to a great tragedy,” Steel says. “There was certainly no enjoyment in seeing this. The feeling that you have when you see someone in absolute panic and terror, there is no like, ‘Oh, what a great shot!’ It never crosses your mind. Never.” He and his crew actually saved lives, he claims. “Whenever we saw someone climb up on the rail we called the Bridge District. We saved six people. I don’t know a single filmmaker anywhere that can say that.”
Steel compares himself to documentary-makers working in places like Iraq, where people are dying all the time. “They’ll say, ‘This is what I do, I’m a filmmaker. I’m a witness to this and I record this.’ For some reason, because, I guess, it’s suicide, people have applied the standard differently, it seems, to me and the film. People are like, ‘Why didn’t you just get up there on the bridge and stop people jumping?’ It’s not that easy.”
He believes that part of this reaction stems from the film challenging audiences to confront a “terrifying taboo”. Suicide scares us because “everyone has a moment where it crosses your mind. We’re more comfortable when it happens in a dorm room or in a barn, or in the middle of the night out on a road, than we are when it happens in broad daylight. This way you’re forced to look at the people and it makes people very uncomfortable.”
But The Bridge is not just about watching people jumping. The meat of the film is intimate interviews with relatives and friends and eye witnesses, people who were saved from jumping, and a young man who survived, having decided on the way down that he wanted to live. Using these, Steel attempts to build up a picture of the victims’ emotional and mental histories. He also shows the effects of suicide on the people left behind, and not only their hurt but in some cases their anger and, very often, their guilt. “I think with people who lose someone to suicide it has a totally unique afterlife,” Steel says. “It’s like whatever happens you’re always playing the tape in reverse looking for those moments. What if I had done this? What if I had done with that? That never really goes away.”
Steel’s own personal anguish laid the foundation for the film. His brother died of cancer, age 17, and a year later his sister was killed by a drunk driver. There were times when he would wake up in the morning in despair, but he never thought of killing himself. “I guess the question of why I didn’t ever feel that way was somewhere in the back of my head. You know, what is that thing that makes us want to live?”
When 9/11 happened, he watched from his window as people jumped from the World Trade Center rather than “dying in the inferno”. Later, Tad Friend wrote a story in the New Yorker about the GGB suicides. “I must have made some connection and thought that these people were also, in a way, trying to escape a sort of personal emotional inferno. The idea that someone had to walk from some spot off the bridge to some spot on the bridge, in plain sight, I guess it just gave me this idea that I would see something about the nature of how one goes from being alive to not [being alive].”
Since making the film, Steel has drawn fire for his methods. He lied to get a permit to film the bridge, claiming, apparently, that he was making the first in a series of documentaries about national monuments. Then, when he interviewed the relatives, he waited to tell them that he had filmed their loved ones’ deaths. He claims that he needed to maintain a level of secrecy because as the bridge was approaching its 1000th death, the phenomenon became the subject of radio conversations and some newspapers kept a running tally, and there was a "mad spike" of people jumping off the bridge. “What that meant to me was there were people out there in the world, who were unstable and unwell, who would be seeking attention in all the worst possible ways," Steel explains. "Everyone talks about the ethics of this film but the one ethical question I had to answer above all else was that I wouldn’t induce anyone to jump in order to be immortalised on film.”
He did not tell the families immediately because they might have got the wrong idea about what he would show in the film and tip off the Bridge District. “Knowing myself and believing I’m a sensitive person, and knowing it was never really meant to be a salacious, gory exploitation film, I just knew I wouldn’t put [the families] in a position that would make them feel bad. I mean I had to believe that about myself.”
The results are uncomfortable and thought-provoking. We watch people climb over the rail and then drop into the water. Sometimes we just see a splash in the distance, sometimes we follow them down. There is nothing as graphic as the descriptions of popped eye sockets and people drowning in Friend's article. The film is not exploitative, although it raises several ethical conundrums.
Watching it you feel like you are staring into the same puzzling black hole as the relatives. There are no answers, just troubling questions – and an ocean of sadness. When I tell Steel that I found nothing reassuring in the film, he says that was not his objective.
“It’s meant to challenge you to think about the nature of suicide, about the nature of our relationships to other people. If I wanted to give you easy answers I could have trotted out psychiatrists saying ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’, all the lines every single expert will offer you, but that doesn't make you think.”
One of the men he filmed jumping had just turned 40 and felt alone and isolated. Steel could relate as he had turned 40 while he was making The Bridge. “I was like, 'Uh-oh. I don’t have any money. My whole life is just spent staring at people killing themselves off the bridge.’ I could understand that isolation. Most of us feel depressed or despair, maybe not with paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but most of us know what it feels like to end a relationship and lose your job and not be able to sleep all in the same week. Those things happen.”
The difference is that most of us do not kill ourselves. And therein lays the chilling unsolved mystery at the heart of this unsettling and highly recommended film.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman newspaper.
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014