The Bridge

First Stripe Productions
Eric Steel/United States 2006

On May 11th, 2004, a beautiful and sunny day, Gene Sprague crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Dressed all in black and with his long dark hair blowing around his head, Sprague’s distinctive appearance attracted the attention of director Eric Steel. Steel’s camera followed Sprague as he spent 93 minutes walking the usual tourist route, looking at the view and doubling back in a perfectly ordinary way. That is, until he suddenly climbed on top of the guardrail and jumped to his death.

With such dramatic footage in such a breathtaking setting, Steel wisely avoids camera trickery or narrative voiceover and allows his images to speak for themselves. The Golden Gate Bridge is a gorgeous place, and The Bridge clearly demonstrates its power and beauty through postcard footage in all seasons. But Steel leaves us to draw our own conclusions as to why so many people go there to die. Such restraint is atypical in current documentaries as well as its dignified way in handling such an emotive subject.

During the filming of The Bridge, which took place from dawn to dusk every day in 2004, Steel and his team witnessed – and shot footage of – 23 of the 24 suicides that took place there that year. Shockingly, that’s about an average number of deaths, and has been since the bridge opened. Yes, we see the people jumping, and we see the splash. They were hardly advertising for it, but then again they don’t need to – lessons have been learned since the race to become the bridge’s 500th suicide in October 1973. Although it’s not mentioned in the film, the director and his crew agreed before they began that people’s lives were more important than their work. The moment they saw someone go over the fence, they called the police. Some people were reached in time, but other people didn’t wait long enough on the ledge to be saved.

Consider those who jumped from the Twin Towers in 2001, and did so to escape an inferno not of their making. Who condemns them? For that matter, who criticizes the media for endlessly replaying the footage? Aren’t people who choose to die from jumping off a beautiful bridge in San Francisco simply escaping an inferno of a different kind? Committing suicide is a choice; no matter what the context, to do so in public invites other people to watch. When the news shows people being attacked or killed, it is infinitely more disturbing, because causing that type of spectacle was not that person’s choice. But there is a big difference when people take their lives into their own hands. It evokes a visceral reaction in everyone. When does the pain become so unbearable that death is a release? Where’s my breaking point? What would I have done?

Bearing witness to the deaths in this film – even at such a remove – is painful and upsetting, but oddly it doesn’t feel intrusive. The attention-seeking that comes with this type of suicide – the “cry for help” – is the point. After all, if someone sees you hurting yourself, they can try to stop you. Our complicity in their choice is what they want. It’s the indifference that we witness which is really painful. The young man who jumped but somehow lived was crying on the bridge, trying to make up his mind, when a woman tapped him on the shoulder. Perhaps she would ask what was wrong; instead she handed him a camera and asked him to take her picture.

Watching someone’s four-second fall to their death is not as difficult as watching the joggers and sightseers pass without noticing those figures poised on the edge below. With other people that I’ve discussed the film with, the reaction is generally incredulity and the impossibility of that happening. Except it is possible; judging from this film, it happens all the time. When confronted with someone literally on the edge of death, we don’t believe our eyes and ears. During the year they filmed, Steel says it was rare for someone to reach over the ledge and drag someone to safety.

The interviews with the family and friends are vital for contextualizing the actions of these people. Most of the people who killed themselves struggled with mental illness for a very long time. Most of them discussed suicide before actually attempting it. All of the survivors clearly struggled with accepting what happened, and what role they might have had in it. But most of the family and friends interviewed mainly were relieved that their loved-one was now at peace.

The unasked question is why it is so easy for people to die on the Golden Gate Bridge. More people commit suicide there than anywhere else in America. No barriers in place, what Sprague and the others had to do was simply step over a waist-high metal railing. But if someone really wants to die, can anything be done? It’s debatable, but surely it’s worth making it difficult for someone in despair to kill themselves. If it’s too much to improve the entire mental health care system in America, a barrier on the bridge is the least that can be done.

By not turning away from the act of suicide, The Bridge forces you to confront what you are seeing to the point where you can’t deny it anymore. The crowning achievement of this remarkable, respectful film is that it makes you wonder what you can do so that you never have to see it again.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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