Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 09 May 2006
Source 35mm print
Features: The 5th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
William Carlos Williams, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
In 2004 director Eric Steel and crew set up cameras on both sides of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and captured two dozen suicides on film. The Golden Gate Bridge is reportedly the most popular site for suicide in the United States, as the iconic structure has no rails, an easy footpath to the outer railing, and a repeated lack of plans to construct any kind of barrier to deter jumpers. Inspired by a New Yorker article published in 2003, Steel combines interviews with family and friends with footage of the suicides and stands back, observing plainly through the lens.
Clearly Steel’s film was bound to have the controversy already seen on the web and through the Tribeca Film Festival press junkets, a minor buzz that will only increase when the film is placed in larger distribution through IFC later this year. In terms of style and structure, which are easy to overlook considering the focus of the piece, The Bridge is competent, although a few generic elements, such as a smattering of “indie” songs played over sections of the film, slightly detract from the gravity of the film, as well as its subjects.
The film is unnerving in its blunt and firsthand documentation of suicide. Shot after shot shows men and women jumping to their death, although they retain an eerie individuality; each person jumps in a particular way, whether scrambling over the side to a quick leap or stretching back with arms held out, holding a diver’s pose for a split second before falling headfirst over the edge. Unrelenting yet without a numbing effect, the dreadful sight retains its power even at the conclusion of the piece. Listening to an audio Q&A with director Steel, who has been understandably questioned for his decision to film live suicide, he claims that it was nearly impossible to discern who was going to jump, as they shot hours of footage of people weeping at the bridge who never came close to jumping, while others gave little evidence to their intentions. Steel also claims that he and his crew had cell phones on hand and would call for help when they believed they were about to witness a suicide, and supposedly stopped at least six individuals. Facts such as these are not the kind that necessarily add to my thoughts on a film but in this particular case, if we are to take Steel at his word, it’s slightly easier to discuss the film without focusing so much on the filmmaking process and instead on its results.
Although the suicide footage is deeply disturbing, several of the interviews with family members are not only as upsetting, but also quite aggravating. Depression, and in some cases severe mental illness is evidently the cause of the suicides depicted, although the degree to which family and friends were aware of these conditions fluctuates from disbelief to outright denial. In the New Yorker piece Jumpers, there is a mention of what appears to be the psychological reasoning behind the lack of a suicide barrier on the bridge:
In 1976, an engineer named Roger Grimes began agitating for a barrier on the Golden Gate. He walked up and down the bridge wearing a sandwich board that said “Please Care. Support a Suicide Barrier.” He gave up a few years ago, stunned that in an area as famously liberal as San Francisco, where you can always find a constituency for the view that pets should be citizens or that poison oak has a right to exist, there was so little empathy for the depressed. “People were very hostile,” Grimes told me. “They would throw soda cans at me, or yell, ‘Jump!’”
This attitude is reflected in several of the testimonies presented from the very family members who have lost loved ones to the Bridge. Lisa, a woman in her late twenties, was clearly suffering from mental illness as her family recounts behavior stemming from her early teens. However, while acknowledging her illness, the family seems distanced from Lisa in a way that lacks responsibility as well as understanding. For instance, her sister announces that when their Father passed away while the children were at a young age, she and her brother didn’t “go crazy” as Lisa did, proceeds to make stereotypical and condescending remarks on Lisa’s “black” gothic clothing and mood swings, and mentions leaving Lisa on her own to a point where it is questionable how much support was given to the young woman. Other survivors are angry, while some are nearly too accepting to the point of allowing their loved ones to leave for the bridge freely, even though they clearly stated their intent to end their life. Steel mentions his intentions for this film to be a warning for those with a loved one in their lives experiencing depression and suicidal tendencies. Cynically his words can easily be read as a copout, a tacked on message to evade moral responsibility, and yet there is a desperate misunderstanding of mental illness in these interviews that supports Steel’s stated purpose.
Ultimately the haunting images give The Bridge its intensity; Gene is most potent of the suicide victims, as the film returns to his black clad figure with his long, windblown hair several times until he jumps at the end of the film. Steel has mentioned that Gene did not look like a typical jumper, more of a tourist as he walked the bridge endlessly that day. While Gene wasn’t labeled as a jumper, one anonymous woman was, ironically by a photographer whose rescue of that near death is caught on camera and provides as much, if not more of a shock than any of the suicides. There is something extremely clumsy and awkward about this scene, as it is intercut with an interview with the photographer who is almost surreally involved, describing his distraction as he first photographed the woman before realizing she was literally about to jump. The gracelessness of the moment is a jolt, and if the scenes of suicide have become rhythmic, a glaring reminder of life’s precariousness.
The Bridge remains an anomaly to me. I had little difficulty watching the suicides, yet was surprised to feel how shaken I was afterwards. The wide shots, as the camera restlessly patrols the bridge and pulls back to view the bridge in full remain strong in my mind, and evoked (as I am certain it did for the Tribeca screening panel) television footage from 9/11, as the tiny image of a suicide victim hit the water in between the tall and slender towers and the clear, cloudless sky overhead. Is the film manipulative? I didn’t find it so; suicide occurs every day around the world, at a rate of 88 succeeding each day in the United States, a sobering and distressing fact. Documenting it doesn’t bother me so much as the lack of prevention, and the basic disinterest that is evident in the film. Sadly these deaths are quite noticeable, unlike the fate of Icarus in Bruegel’s painting, immortalized in two poems, one of which I have quoted from. The far more troubling aspect remains that these people felt not only unnoticed, but perhaps quite useless and unwelcome while they were alive.