dir: Eric Steel
I know it’s called The Bridge. But don’t go thinking this documentary is actually about the bridge or a bridge. Very deceptive advertising, I guess. There you are at your local Blockburster, hoping to hire a DVD about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and instead you get this macabre slice of time and life about suicide.
A lot of people have committed suicide from leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s iconic for those seeking to end the miserableness of their existences. They’ll travel from across America to get to the bridge in order to fling themselves off of it with certainty of outcome, thenceforth leading them towards the oblivion they so desperately crave.
In the year that most of this footage derives from, which was 2004, 24 people killed themselves by leaping from this bridge. That’s an average of about one a fortnight. This documentary contains footage of some of these people offing themselves, and interviews with their friends and families.
To say that I find this film deeply disturbing on numerous levels is an understatement. A profound understatement. Seeing these people, about 19 in total, plunging to their deaths is horrible, and provokes a horrible feeling in my guts just thinking about it. It’s not that it’s graphic, although there can’t be something more graphic than watching the moment where a person likely dies. It’s watching these people take the leap that is even more horrible than the impact, which is thankfully almost benign.
The distance at the middle, from the bridge to the water, is about 220 feet. The plunge takes around 4 seconds. At the point of impact, at a speed of about 120 kilometres an hour, the collision with the water is usually fatal. If the impact doesn’t kill the jumper, plunging deep into the water, too deep to be able to swim to the surface before drowning, usually does the trick.
Then there’s the current which drags many bodies down so that they’re never recovered, and there’s always the sharks that frequent the bay. They stopped keeping track of the number of people who committed suicide from this remarkable bridge in 2005 when the number exceeded 1,500. In 2006, 34 bodies were recovered after jumps, which means there was probably plenty more where the jumper wasn’t seen or where the body wasn’t found. They’ve only recently cut pedestrian access to the bridge at night, when plenty of people were taking the plunge unseen and unlamented.
This is some really dark shit right here. Not just that so many people want to off themselves, but that this bridge acts as a magnet for people who want to die in this profoundly romantic and melodramatic manner.
So you can understand why someone would be curious about what’s going on here. The problem is, since you don’t know they’re going to off themselves until they try to off themselves, you can’t really ask the jumpers after they’ve jumped. All you can do is ask the people picking up the pieces what happened and what might have been going through the poor bastard’s minds when their minds were destroyed by smacking water as hard as concrete.
There are a few of the jumpers whose battles with depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are well known by their families or friends, but there are just so many of them who, apart from the record of their last few moments, we’ll never know why.
We hear a lot about Gene, who is described as a black wearing rocker type who always used to joke about offing himself. His friends alternately describe him as a funny, nerdy sounding guy who was the life of the party, but also as a guy who couldn’t seem to get the whole life thing together, in terms of work and relationships with anyone other than friends. Mostly we see that he was probably always going to go down this path.
Others have their downfall literally and figuratively played out for us by their families. In general, the family members have had their time to grieve, to process what happened, and in some cases, the perspective to see how this dark deed, for some of these people, was probably the only way out from an existence they found utterly torturous.
This is disturbing material, disturbing and gratifying at the same time. There’s no hysterical overplaying or underplaying of events. The filmmaker doesn’t intrude on the story at all, and we know him only from the footage he films of people who look like they’re going to go.
The doco was inspired by a New Yorker article by a guy called Tad Friend, who goes into some incredible detail about what this bridge has wrought upon the consciousness of so many Americans.
The two most fascinating aspects for me (of material present in the article, not the doco), is that the Reverend Jim Jones, he of the famous Kool-Aid, who encouraged over 900 people to kill themselves at Jonestown, Guyana, gave a speech to his faithful lemmings on the bridge, referring to it as the gateway from the continent into the void. The second is that jumpers have often been known to write messages and put them in plastic bags in their pockets, leading to one message recovered from some poor shmuck’s body reading: “Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache”.
It clearly doesn’t take much to send some people over the edge.
This does bring up a lot of ethical questions. The queasiness felt when the jumpers launch themselves into the air, and when they impact with the water is simultaneously wrenching and confusing. We wonder whether it’s appropriate subject matter for anything, let alone a documentary. What about the ethics of waiting around for people to kill themselves so you can film it? We see some people being stopped by others on the bridge, and we are told (in a making of doco, not the doco itself) that Steel would call the police whose horrible job it is to patrol the bridge to stop jumpers whenever they started to climb over the barrier.
In what seems to be a diversion, Steel interviews a photographer who was taking photos that day from the bridge and saw a woman looking like she was going to jump. At first, all he does (the photographer, not the doco’s director, who is always on the ground a long way from the bridge itself) is photograph the woman, then thinking that he’ll be the last person to see them alive. It only later occurs to him that instead of documenting the even with photographs, he could be interceding in events and stopping her.
I felt immensely relieved when he pulled her back over the barrier and sat on her until the bridge patrol got there. But then when she’s shown at the same spot weeks later trying to jump again, you feel like there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
Where does the line of personal responsibility begin and where does it end? What responsibility do you possess as the filmmaker or even as the viewer? Aren’t we deriving entertainment or even profit from the deaths of others? This isn’t coincidental news reportage: this is footage captured whilst waiting for people to kill themselves.
But he’s not causing these people to kill themselves. They don’t know they’re being filmed or even observed. They could alternately be thinking that in this, their most desperate moment, why couldn’t there be someone who could see their pain, or, that they are glad that no-one is seeing what they are about to do. Do they want to be stopped, do they want to be left alone. Steel takes this away from them by creating was is probably the most real reality programming ever created. And that bugs me deeply.
Worst of all, for me, is that the persistent footage of Gene indicates that no-one including Steel tried to stop him from jumping, considering the amount of footage. And, also, from that distance, he looked a lot like me. The hair, the black clothes; I felt like I was watching myself on the bridge. And when he takes the leap, well, let’s just say that I felt gutted.
I don’t know how ethical this whole escapade is. I don’t know if this doco is the best investigation in why people choose to end it all from here, even after an interview with one of the rare survivors of a leap to oblivion. But I will say that few other documentaries I saw this or any other year have had as profoundly disturbing an effect on me.
It makes for utterly compelling and uncomfortable viewing. Definitely should NOT be watched by suicidal types.
8 leaps to oblivion out of 10
“When I talked to the highway patrolman, I asked him "Is this a rare occurrence or does this happen a lot?" And he looked at me and he sort of smiled and he said, "It happens all the time.” – The Bridge