As one savior of a suicide attempter said in the film, being in such a situation is as if you are in a separate, detached world when looking at the real one from behind the lens of a camera. “It’s like the nature photographer, taking pictures of a tiger, but he doesn’t realize the tiger’s running right at him until it’s too late.” This sense of capturing an extraordinary aspect of human nature on film does not hinder, but rather it illuminates Eric Steel’s “The Bridge,” (2006).
Doing needed justice to the star-child of taboo subjects, Steel and his cameramen shot hundreds of hours of telephoto film aimed at San Francisco’s Golden Gate in an attempt to capture the numerous suicide attempts that occur there every year. Despite its purest majesty, the bridge is the single most popular destination for suicide attempts in the entire world, according to the film, with 26 successful attempts during Steel’s yearlong 2004 shoot.
Framing the film with the story of Gene, a man who died after jumping from the bridge in 2004, we hear the candid depositions of his friends and family. From these, it becomes clear that even the closest of friends to a mentally volatile person can be totally naïve to what that person is capable of doing. While these types of actions are extremely unpredictable, we generally avoid dwelling on the moroseness of the topic because it makes us feel uncomfortable or afraid that even bringing it up will provide that spark needed for someone to literally go over the edge.
The sister of one of the jumpers puts the attraction of the bridge into perspective, citing its accessibility, stunning beauty, and above all its false promise of fame and romanticism.
The ethical thorns fly in from all directions when one really takes into consideration what is going on here. Some may (and have) asked, how the filmmakers could just stand by and watch people die. Furthermore, by showing people in the act, copycat attempts could result. In an extra DVD featurette however, it is said the cameramen were always ready to make the call as soon as they saw someone jump. Though their goal may be eerily unsettling to many, shining light on the subject germinates discussion among the concerned.
In the tradition of rudimentary, non-condemning documentary filmmaking begun prior to the Depression-era, exploitation is not an impetus for Steel here, as he interviews the families, friends and survivors of those who attempted suicide on the bridge without the slightest sense of judgment. He presents them as they really are, and how people and families experience these tragedies every day.
The most striking moments in this daring, universally essential film are the long, telephoto sequences of people calmly strolling across the bridge until one of them quietly slips their legs over the railing, as if everything is normal. Then a passerby realizes what may be happening and decides to break the social convention of polite non-involvement we all live by, intervening to save the person from jumping into the depths.