The Reeler

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October 23, 2006

A Bridge Too Far?

NYC-based filmmaker Steel brings suicide to the screen in The Bridge

When filmmaker Eric Steel, who had never made a movie before, arrived in San Francisco to shoot what would become his documentary The Bridge, he put notices on Craigslist and at Stanford University looking for a crew. Then he began to scout different locations around the Golden Gate Bridge where he could set up his cameras.

"There were four people there during the course of the day," Steel recalled to The Reeler. "There were two people at a time -- one on the north side, one on the south side -- and they worked either the morning shift or the afternoon shift. We were there from before the sun came up until after the sun went down."

But Steel's commitment had to do with more than just filming a landmark. It was after reading a story in The New Yorker stating that this was the most popular suicide venue in the world that the Manhattan-based director headed west to make a film about it. Now set to open Oct. 27 in New York, his finished documentary raises as many questions about mental health and depression as it does about filmmaking and a filmmaker's responsibility.

"From the very beginning I wanted to look at what I considered the darkest moments of a human life," Steel said. "This walk out onto the bridge to me only outwardly was a manifestation of that. That time that someone spent on the bridge before they chose to end their life was to me the darkest corner of a human mind. And I always wanted to go and do interviews with the family to show what it looked like on the outside as to what it really was on the inside."

The Golden Gate Bridge has always been a glamorous lure for those wanting a dramatic exit, inviting suicides with its mythic -- even poetic -- quality, graceful lines and partial envelopment in mist. The filmmaker captures much of this gentle tableau with gorgeous, saturated colors -- the rich orange-red of the bridge against the deep navy blue of the water. In lyrical passages of well-composed shots we see montages of surfers, people strolling, birds soaring. We watch boaters and people with kites. These are ordinary days.

Yet Steel presents these qualities of the bridge -- along with its low guard rails -- as factors making the spot so appealing to potential jumpers. His cameras spend a good deal of time watching a man referred to simply as Gene, pacing back and forth on the edge of the bridge. Although in reality the scene occured within the span of a day, the filmmaker interweaves it throughout the film, establishing a manipulated dramatic arc of sorts with the payoff of Gene's leap as his final shot.

As such, The Bridge stirred plenty of controversy when it premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, where some viewers likened its intent to that of a snuff film. It's clear that Steel (left) would not have had a movie had no one jumped during the year he had his cameras in place, though he noted that suicides would have happened whether he was shooting there or not. Steel added that he and his crew were actually able to prevent several deaths: Each member of his crew had a cell phone with the authorities on speed dial, and Steel said they were notified on many occasions.

"We decided that we were human beings first and filmmakers second, and it was our job to intervene whenever we could," he said. "In the beginning we didn't get the close-ups of people jumping. We saw splashes. And I still believe the splash footage in and of itself would have made the movie without some of the close-ups. We got that in the camera that wasn't manned by a person -- the fixed camera."

Other aspects of Steel's process raised even more ethical questions. He told officials with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that he was doing a film about United States landmarks (the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Arch would be next, he claimed) to obtain access. Steel said this was actually a necessary tactic because if word got out about what he was really doing it might draw more suicides desiring publicity for their final act.

When interviewing the suicides' families, he also concealed the fact that he was including footage of their loved ones taking the final plunge. Steel emphasizes again that it was necessary to hide the truth as a way of preventing more publicity-hungry jumpers who might hear of his project. He insisted that the families were okay with this after the fact, in some cases even experiencing catharsis because of the film.

"Suppose one of the families went to the press and said, 'Hey here's this guy making a film about people jumping off the bridge,'" Steel said. "But with the families I feel very protective of them. They trusted me with stories that are incredibly personal and shared things with me that I know came right from their heart. And I know that I wasn't going to be using the footage in a way that was sensational or would really upset them. And when they saw the film they came to embrace me."






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