Eric Steel’s Suicide Film
Despite being banned at the Sundance, Berlin and Cannes film festivals, and attracting political debate in this country, suicide movie The Bridge will screen as the most controversial film of the International Film Festival, which starts this week. Salient volunteer writer Duncan McKinlay talks to director Eric Steel and Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton about censorship and asks how far should suicide reporting go?
Either purely by accident or by canny marketing, the annual International Film Festival never fails to stir up controversy. This year’s flick magnet is a 2006 documentary called The Bridge. The movie was shot in 2004 with multiple cameras pointed at a notorious suicide spot on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It was inspired by a 2003 article entitled “Jumpers” in The New Yorker magazine. Apart from being one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, it also happens to be a very popular place for Americans from all walks of life to kill themselves.
More people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world. More than 1250 people to date – one every 15 days on average – have killed themselves by jumping off the 70-year-old bridge. The jump is the equivalent of a four-second, 25-storey fall, and although some have survived it, a body is usually shattered when it strikes the water at 120 kilometres per hour.
The movie shows 23 people taking their final fatal plunge, interspersed with interview footage of friends and family members of the deceased.
Not surprisingly the film has polarised people. Some think it is a brave foray into a little talked-about subject, while others maintain the film is voyeuristic and irresponsible. The Ministry of Health has contacted festival organisers about providing viewers with phone numbers to call for help during screenings.
If Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton – whose daughter Philippa committed suicide in 1994 – had his way, there would be no ovations for the film, standing or otherwise. Although he did not go as far as saying the movie should be banned outright, the party pill poo pooper would rather the film not be shown in New Zealand at all.
“I think it is voyeuristic and dangerous to show a film that plays around with and shows suicide methods,” he said. “Displaying this sort of thing is inviting the small group who are vulnerable to indulge in copycat behavior.”
“The problem is, you or I might be objective and 90 out of 100 other people might be objective – but there is always going to be that small percentage of people that firstly might be attracted to the film, and secondly might be inclined to follow the behaviour displayed in the film.”
The Bridge was made by a New Yorker with the superhero-like name of Eric Steel. His various production and direction credits include the 2000 remake of Shaft, Angela’s Ashes and Bringing out the Dead. When I phoned Steel in New York, he had just returned from a screening of The Bridge at a Russian film festival. He says that most suicides are far more complex than simple copycat behaviour.
“I would hate to believe that one could be convinced to take their life by seeing an image of it. If that were really true then New Zealand should ban all images of people bungy jumping. It is just as much a visual clue on how to do it than what the film is. If it was just as easy as shutting off the images then I wouldn’t show the images, but you can’t kid yourself and say that is why most people end their life. The numbers at the bridge were staggeringly high before we showed the images of people killing themselves on the bridge.”
Anderton told Salient that he does not intend to see the movie. “I don’t need to see it to know that suicide is an uncomfortable thing. I personally don’t want it shown but I don’t want to automatically ban things that I haven’t seen, but I do know it is dangerous territory and I don’t think we need take the risk.” (As of time of writing the film has been cleared to screen and is still at the censor’s office awaiting classification.)
Anderton was also critical of the film makers’ methods, saying that their very presence at the bridge could have been another reason for people to choose to take their life there.
“Once you start to publicise this as a successful way to commit suicide, particularly when you think you might be on film, then it’s extraordinarily inappropriate and a terribly risky thing to do…it’s absolutely irresponsible.”
Steel feels that criticism is unfair. “I think he should see the film before he says these things,” Steel says. “There is no glory to any of the deaths that are shown. The deaths are all tragic. If it did glorify these deaths then I think it would be a problem, but it really doesn’t do that. We were very careful when we were out there filming this. I actually had to lie to government officials so they didn’t spread the word that we were out here filming, because I didn’t want to risk someone who was not well coming to the bridge to take their own life so they would be immortalized on film. And I have taken a great deal of heat for that.”
The strongest deterrent to suicide is showing the pain and grief of the families left behind, Steel says. “The fact that this film combines the one and the other, the connection between the action and the reaction makes the impact on the families much more real.”
Steel says that even in other places where the movie has been initially controversial, the fuss usually subsided once people actually saw it. Often groups who had initially been very critical of the movie, based on the premise alone became ardent supporters of it once they actually saw it.
“There has been usually an advance of people seeing the film, who are aware of what the film is and what it might do. In the UK the Samaritans, (an organization akin to New Zealand’s Life Line) raised objections to the film before they had seen it, but now that the film is out and has been playing across the UK for many months, I have been asked to do an interview with the Samaritans newsletter and they’re now giving away free copies of the DVD release of the movie.”
There are two schools of thought surrounding the reporting and documentation of suicide across the media spectrum. Some believe that it is dangerous to portray it at all, fearing that mentioning it in any context is inappropriate, as it runs the risk of glorifying the act.
Everything from high school performances of Romeo and Juliet to the supposed insidiousness located in the grooves of Judas Priest records have been criticized and scrutinised endlessly over the years. The other school of thought is that the more suicide is talked about, the less of a taboo subject it will become, leading to greater openness and understanding and ultimately less people committing the act itself.
Unsurprisingly, Steel sits in the latter camp.
“Suicide is something that is absolutely terrifying to people,” says Steel. “That is one of the reasons I made this movie, that we prefer not to see it and prefer not to talk about it. We devour homicides in the news; we devour homicides in our entertainment. Die Hard 4 is opening here, and the body count is just staggering. We have no problem with that, but we have this real fear of suicide, yet in America there are twice as many suicides every year as there are homicides, and you would never know that from how our media and our culture reflects things.”
The Bridge is Steel’s first foray into the world of documentary filmmaking, and came about as the result of wanting to be far more hands-on with the filmmaking process. As first projects go, deciding to spend a year watching people fall to their deaths would not be at the top of most peoples must-make list. Although the suicide footage in The Bridge has become one of the main talking points of the movie, it only makes up a very small part of the film. The bulk of the movie is made up of candid interviews with friends and family of the people shown jumping off the bridge. Steele enlisted the agreement of the local coroner to help him gain access to the families.
“You have to look at things from his perspective. Marin county is the county right next door to San Francisco, and all the bodies are brought there because that is the closest coast guard station from where they are pulled out of the water. It is a very sleepy little town. They live in nice homes and tend not to even die there. So here is this coroner who’s been there ten years and the number of suicides in his county are disproportionally high relative to other counties around him, which is a real problem for him.”
“Because there are not that many people who die there it also gives him the chance to really connect with the families of these people, because they have so many questions and want so much explanation, and he’s developed an ability to communicate with them as well. He was our barometer at first and he would say, ‘do you feel comfortable? Do you want to talk to this man who is making a movie about these suicides? Do you feel like helping him?’”
Steel was not forthcoming to his interview subjects that he had footage of their loved ones final moments, as well as their final desperate plunge. He claims that all the people interviewed in the film have now seen it and are glad that they participated in it. Steel says the interviews became very much part of the healing process for the people involved.
“People don’t really want to open up about this to people that they are close to because there is such a stigma attached to it, afterwards these people would call the coroner and tell him thanks, that was really cathartic for us.”
“When you hear something directly from the family members, there is always some sort of subtext or echo of something that isn’t exactly said. We tried to reinforce the fact that what these people said may not be exactly what they are feeling. There are so many emotions that these people have. They’re angry, they’re sad, they’re confused, they’re terrified, but underneath it all there is a sense of love, and in order to reconcile all those emotions, I think you have to come up with explanations, justifications and ideas, because that is the only way you can really assemble the jigsaw puzzle.”
An ongoing thread of the movie, and indeed in criticism of the movie is the story of Eugene Sprague, who walks up and down the bridge, for about 90 minutes, long dark hair fluttering in the breeze, before finally and dramatically throwing himself off. Even though interviews with Gene’s friends and family throughout the movie prepare you for his eventual fall, it is still shocking when it happens. Critics of the movie’s subject matter use the portrayal of Gene as an entry point to launch what appears to be one of the main problems people have with the film. How could you film these people for 90 minutes instead of helping them? Steel has obviously had to answer these questions a lot, in fact I only have to mention Gene’s name before he launches into a spirited defense:
“I watched him for 93 minutes on the bridge. You have to understand that every day we were out there we were filming people, sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for a few hours. In our context as the filmmakers he didn’t really look that unusual, but he did have this great long hair, and striking leather jacket. But for 92 minutes and 55 seconds, what he did on the bridge was pretty much what thousands of other people did on the bridge – which was to stand and enjoy the great view and the weather. He didn’t have that look of someone sneaking around.”
“He got off the bridge, and if you get off on the north side of the bridge there is a little turn around point where you have a panoramic view of the city. He’d been standing there for about a minute. All of a sudden he turned around and sat on the bridge backwards, and at that point we were calling the police but he was already jumping.”
“As a crew we determined before we rolled film that if there was anything we could do to save someone, we would. Often we didn’t see anything but a flash and then a splash in the water. We are human beings first and filmmakers second. We made lots of phone calls (every member of the crew had the bridge authorities on speed dial) and we saved six people’s lives. I know a lot of documentary film makers who have made some very difficult stories, but I can’t tell you one who during the course of making their movie saved six people’s lives.”
Another criticism leveled at the film is that it is shamelessly voyeuristic in showing the last moments of these people’s lives. Steel dismisses the criticism, adding that the events did not take place in private.
“These events were all witnessed, we weren’t the only witnesses, so if we didn’t film them it was not like these events would have been private, they were still public events.”
Steel feels that for some of the jumpers, the fact that it was a public place was part of the attraction in picking the bridge as their final destination, maybe as a last ditch cry for help.
“There is a young woman in the film who is pulled off the bridge by a man. She spent a lot of time up there on the bridge preparing. She puts on her make up, she does her hair, she adjusts her hat, she climbs over, and she seems to sing a song. She’s singing a song because she is hoping some one will walk by and hear her. There is no other reason why you would do that, if you were so intent on jumping right away, you’d jump right away.”
Although Steel and his crew had a fair idea what they were getting themselves into, the reality of watching the constant flow of jumpers was something none of them became used to, Steel says.
“I think for me having seen the amount of people who died at the World Trade Center, I had already built up some level of anticipation. But seeing the suicides was absolutely devastating; your heart is racing, your heart is breaking and you’re screaming.”
“The reason we don’t have more footage of complete jumps from beginning to end was not because we weren’t technically proficient, it’s because you just can’t make yourself film it. You start shaking, and crying and calling for help and all these things.”
“There is this very strange little shot in the movie of when someone tosses a rose over the bridge and the camera man follows it all the way down to the water. When a person falls they fall straight down, but when the Rose goes down it gets caught in the wind, it goes left, it goes right, it comes forward to you, it comes back and it is very hard to film something like that technically. Yet we had no problem doing that, we could film that rose going all the way down, but a body falling straight down, we couldn’t do it.”