An interview with the director of controversial Golden Gate suicide doc The Bridge
Inspired by Tad Friend's 2003 New Yorker article "Jumpers," filmmaker Eric Steel spent 2004 shooting the Golden Gate Bridge — intentionally capturing the plunges launched from the world's most popular suicide spot. The resulting doc, The Bridge, studies mental illness by filling in the life stories of the deceased through interviews with friends and family members. After playing to packed houses at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, The Bridge opens for a theatrical run in the city that's perhaps most sensitive to its controversial subject matter. I spoke with Steel during the New Yorker's early October visit to San Francisco.
SFBG: When you contacted the families, did they know that you had footage of their loved ones committing suicide?
ERIC STEEL: The families didn't know, for the same reason that the Golden Gate Bridge authority didn't know. My biggest fear was that word would get out about what we were doing and someone that wasn't thinking clearly would see it as an opportunity to immortalize themselves on film. My original plan was — when we finished shooting at the bridge, and when I'd completed all the interviews — that I was then gonna tell the families that I had the footage and review it with them if they wanted to see it. But in January of 2005, I went to the bridge authority and said, "I have all this footage, and I have these interviews with the families. I want to interview you, the highway patrolmen, and the people who came into contact with these people before they died." They went to the San Francisco Chronicle and suddenly it was all over the front page. I spoke to most of the families that I'd already interviewed and explained, "You have to believe that I'm a sensitive person. We're all doing this in order to save lives and not to exploit people." Almost all of them felt that way, but [some] didn't. Also, there were families that I had not yet contacted. Some said, "We don't want to have anything to do with you," but others said, "We think you're doing this for the right reasons."
SFBG: There aren't any officials interviewed in the film. Why did they refuse to participate?
ES: I think it would be very hard for them to respond to some of the issues that we raise. We could easily have used interviews in the film that we didn't, that were much more damning, of what the highway patrolmen and the bridge people did and didn't do. There's one man, the crystal meth addict — we called the bridge as soon as we saw him climb over. It took them four and a half minutes to [reach him]. From where my crew was sitting, I could have run to that spot faster than they got there.
SFBG: How many calls like that did you make?
ES: We probably called 20 times during the year. We didn't call so much that they thought we were crying wolf. But for us, it was simple: as soon as someone made a move to climb up onto the rail, we made a phone call.
SFBG: Was there ever a point when you thought, "I'm filming people jump. Should I be doing this?"
ES: Because we had already determined that if we could intervene, we would, and that would be the priority, it didn't feel like we were waiting to film them dying. We were out there because we knew it was coming. With 24 [suicides in an average year], it was like every 15 days you would expect someone to die. If 10 days had gone by and there hadn't been an incident on the bridge, I know the [camera crew] who was working the next day got increasingly anxious. But not a day went by when you didn't think you were watching somebody who might be preparing to die.
SFBG: Did you ever consider acknowledging your role within the context of the film, maybe via narration?
ES: I really wanted to be invisible, in a way. For me, there was something strange about explaining too much. I thought it would let the audience off the hook a little bit too easily.
SFBG: Have you been drawn into the debate over the suicide barrier?
ES: I believe that it's ridiculous that they don't have a barrier. At the same time, I recognize that the barrier's really the final moment where you can make a difference. The lives stretch back in time, and there are all sorts of moments where people could have intervened. If we had a better health care system, better mental health services, we wouldn't be in the same position. The burden is on the bridge to put up a barrier, but it's also on all of us to take more responsibility for the people who need our help. (Cheryl Eddy)
Opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters
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