Banned from showing at Sundance, Cannes or Berlin, Eric Steel’s “The Bridge” documentary, about those who feel that life has lost all meaning, is no stranger to controversy. What made Eric decide to do a documentary about suicide-jumpers? Is it exploitation? Steel explains all in this interview with Film Threat’s Jay Slater…
What was your inspiration, goal and drive to lens “The Bridge?”
It happened over a long period of time in various stages. From my office I watched the World Trade Centres get hit in 9/11 and was very aware of people jumping from the building to fall to their deaths. It was then I read in The New York Times that more people choose to end their lives by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world; it was then it clicked with me, I guess, that there was some connection with the people from 9/11 who jumped to escape their own personal emotional inferno. It made me think a lot about why people stay here on this earth and what makes them want to leave. The idea that someone has to walk from one side of the bridge to the edge required a period of time where you are in public on a national monument in broad daylight in front of strangers. I guess it seemed to me a way to turn something that has always been taboo, not spoken about and not seen inside out, and it was a chance to understand this choice and decision to end your life that maybe no one had thought of before.
So it was the horror of 9/11 and seeing people jump from the Twin Towers that sparked your interest to investigate suicide: perhaps an action out of curiosity?
I wouldn’t say it was the horror so much as I had witnessed it. I guess there’s something very profound about witnessing someone choosing to die and that made me think about it. Also, it was the combination of that, the article about the bridge as well as dozens of other little bits and pieces here and there that influenced me to start the project.
When you filmed “The Bridge” and could see someone was preparing to kill themselves, did you never feel inclined to stop them?
There’s obviously one school of thought which as a documentary filmmaker, you sit on one side of the camera, and on the other side you never intervene. I think that part that I am always surprised about when people make that comment is before we even shot a single frame, my whole crew and I sat down and asked as to what we should do if we see a suicide in action. There was never any hesitation: we were human beings first and filmmakers second. And whenever we saw someone climb over the rail, we made a phone call to the bridge authorities – they were on our speed dial and our call went through instantly. We did save lives. I know for a fact in that if we hadn’t been there more people would have died. Our only tool from our position which was more than a mile away was the phone. So we called the authorities and if they were able to save people’s lives, that all depended how long the jumper would stand on the ledge. It was a question of time. We never once just sat there and watched – we always stepped in front of the camera. If we hadn’t, I don’t think we could have slept at nights.
The central fulcrum of the documentary focuses on the actions of Gene who walks up and down the bridge for ninety minutes as if he hadn’t a care in the world, until he slowly but gracefully climbs on to the rail and dives below. Did you have any idea that he had planned his own death?
The crew and I watched literally thousands of people through the course of the year. And many of them, we watched much, much longer than we watched Gene. Not a day went by when we weren’t watching people that we thought were ready to end their lives. We were watching them through a telephoto lens, looking through a viewfinder that was the same size as a packet of sugar without any sound. So we were watching people without understanding who they were and what was going on. We saw hundreds of people crying, dozens of people pacing back and forth – your antenna was always up, you know, you’re always thinking, “This is going to be it.” But almost always the person would meet up with a friend and just walk off the bridge. So it’s possible that thousands of people go on to the bridge contemplating ending their lives but we just don’t know. With Gene, he did pretty much what most tourists do when they go on to the Golden Gate Bridge on a beautiful sunny day. I filmed him on the south side of the bridge sitting on a lookout; he seemed to be enjoying the scenery, his hair was blowing in the wind. Gene walked a little further, he looked out at the ocean, walked further and stopped. It’s a long walk; it’s two miles to get across that bridge. He then walked to the north side. Gene wasn’t pulling at his hair, he wasn’t pacing back and forth and he wasn’t high or panicking, he was just walking. And that is what almost everyone does on the bridge. I watched Gene for ninety-three minutes with my own eyes. At ninety-three minutes, all of a sudden he turned around, stood on the rail and then he was gone. I watched the footage over and over again in the editing room and the only time he ever stepped on the rail was that very last second. There was absolutely no reason to tell he was going to jump up until that point, otherwise we would have called the authorities. And remember that we usually calling them three or four times a day and they probably thought we were crying wolf.
Apparently, “The Bridge” was banned from being screened at Sundance, Berlin and Cannes. As an artist with an important social document on suicide and mental illness, how does it make you feel to be censored by festivals?
I have never spoken to any of the directors and programmers of those festivals and have no idea where that information came from. They may have had any reason in the world as not to select the film to show at Sundance but we have done Tribeca, the London Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, Sarajevo, Chicago, Havana… We’ve been invited to a great number of festivals, far more than those who have turned us down. I guess we could be turned down for any number of reasons. There was no way that we would compromise the film to be shown at a particular film festival and I guess that for those other festivals, it was deemed to be too powerful for their audience. It will also be shown on Channel Four and be broadcast in the US – I really don’t think that a few festival that turn us down matters all that much. At Sundance, if they screen your movie twice, you’re talking about two hundred people. Berlin’s the same. I don’t quite understand their comments that they have. I don’t believe that the film is voyeuristic at all.
It is well documented that the bridge is the world’s number one spot for suicides: why do you think that the authorities refuse to do something about it? And also, could “The Bridge” ignite public interest in suicide prevention?
It’s interesting in that when the New York Times article came out, it bumped every reason they’ve ever had for not putting up a barrier systematically. And it really was one of the most well-executed essays that I have ever read and that’s probably why so many people still talk about it now. But the authorities did nothing. I guess in retrospective, they thought it was bad press, it was a description and would blow over and did nothing. If it was me and it was my bridge, I would put up a chain barrier that people would not be able to climb over. But it’s not my bridge and I can’t make their choices. When we told the authorities in January 2005 that we had this footage, there was a sudden massive emergency meeting. I think in response to actual visual images, real recorded proof of how just easy it is to climb over that rail – and that by the end of the movie, they are not strangers and you know who they are – there is an emotional punch to the film that really have made the bridge to change their operating procedures. Officially, they are studying a process of putting up a suicide barrier, but if they do or not, I have no way of knowing. My hunch is that they’ll all try to do what they’ve done every other time which is to say it’s not worth it and hope that people will lose interest. And if people don’t lose interest, they’ll raise the toll, pretty much like raising petrol prices.
In essence, their philosophy is money over people’s lives.
Most definitely and I think that’s most unfortunate. At the same time, I understand in a way how the bridge district feels that the entire burden is being placed on them. You know, this endgame intervention, the barrier, is the least likely place you will have to affect the outcome. If you look at cancer and you said, “Alright, we’re not going to do any treatment whatsoever until it’s absolutely terminal, and then we’re going to go in and wall off the cancer,” you’d have absolutely no success rate and people would die. Over time, as we’ve dedicated an enormous amounts of resources, money and minds to figure out as to what causes cancer and how we can intervene early, we all know if you treat cancer in its early stages, you have a very high success rate. And we haven’t made that same commitment to mental illness and suicide. Suicide is the end product of an enormous amount of struggle and it doesn’t come across you as you’re walking across the bridge: it’s been growing inside you for a long time. I think it’s important that they put up a barrier across the bridge, but I think that the real way in a larger context is to find earlier stages of intervention. With the bridge, we’re talking about twenty-four people a year, in the United States, it’s thirty-five thousand people a year. You just can’t say we have to save these twenty-four people, you have to save all thirty-five thousand.
Can you understand that “The Bridge” will attract those curious to see graphic imagery of death and physical mutilation as well as being labeled as a “Faces of Death” type movie?
I think that they’ll be disappointed in the movie. The film is provocative and I think it’s disturbing but it’s certainly not a clip reel of death. By and large it’s a very composed film with various interviews and stories and images – it has absolutely nothing to do with the fetish-isizing of death. There is death in this film, there’s no going around it, but I don’t think it’s used or incorporated in a way that will satisfy someone’s voyeuristic urge to see it. I always knew that this film would be considered out of bounds between interviews, images, stories and footage. I guess I was never really tempted to do anything else. I can see how the footage could be used in a different way but that wasn’t the film I wanted to make.
What has been the reaction to the film considering its subject matter?
There certainly have been critics who disliked the film and some were disturbed by it, and I think that there are people who wish it hadn’t been made. That said, it’s a difficult subject matter that we need to face. I don’t expect everyone to embrace it automatically as it’s the first part of a hurdle to get us over in a way. I think we choose not to see things that are happening in front of us all the time. If you watch TV or read the paper, you will have the sense that there is an enormous amount of murders in the United States – but there are twice the amounts of suicides than murders. There is something very comforting hearing newscasters say that a criminal or child molester has been arrested: we’ve done these things and taken these steps as it seems concrete, as if they’ve protected us. And suicide is one of those things in how we don’t know how to protect ourselves from. I think people have a very irrational fear if you are in contact with someone who is suicidal, you’ll catch it as if it was a cold. Even the idea that someone is going to watch this movie and then decide to jump off the bridge… It’s not that I’m aware of the real significance of copycat suicides, but I think most of that takes place as a result of a very, very long struggle with mental illness: not as a result of seeing this movie. To make people aware of something that they’re uncomfortable with and make them talk about it, I think is the only way that I can see that will change opinion and maybe act differently.
What do you say to those who think that “The Bridge” is exploitation?
But I don’t think it is exploitation. If it were exploitation, I could have put together a clip-reel of people jumping off the bridge and sell it on the Internet. I’m sure I would have money in my pocket. If anyone who wants to look at my tax returns and retirement fund, they’d be happy to know that movie was not a lucrative money making scheme.