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Tuesday, June 18

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Airbags

The Bridge
Genre: Documentary
Filmmaker: Eric Steele
Release Date: 10/27/06
View trailer here.

Thousands of miles from where the World Trade Center once stood, the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rise 746 feet above the San Francisco Bay. Suspension cables stretch across the water like a great orange harp amidst a stunning panorama of mountains and lush foliage. Since its completion in 1937, the bridge has broken many records that were thought to be unbreakable. The steel span was the longest ever built — requiring the tallest towers; the longest, thickest cables; and the deepest underwater foundation of any bridge in history. Another record-breaking, more sobering fact is that more people have chosen to end their lives here than anywhere else in the world.

Eric Steel's controversial documentary, The Bridge, had its Midwest premiere at the 2006 Chicago International Film Festival amid much controversy. In 2004, Steele and his crew set up two cameras across from the Golden Gate Bridge, capturing every minute from sunrise to sundown on more than 10,000 hours of tape. Steel initially gained the permission of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to set up his cameras by lying to Bridge officials. Saying that he was attempting to capture the "powerful and spectacular interaction between the monument and nature," Steel explained that the bridge would be the first subject of an entire series of projects involving various national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty and the St. Luis Arch. Later, in an email to bridge officials, Steel revealed what the movie was really about. Forever immortalized on film were the suicides of 23 men and women, along with many unsuccessful attempts.

Rife with metaphor and juxtaposition, the opening scenes of the film depict the bridge in an eerie shroud of fog; then bathed in sunshine, the surrounding turquoise waters a playground for kite surfers and seals. While the footage of the bridge and surrounding bay are visually spectacular, Steel achieves the difficult task of not romanticizing the bridge. Aesthetic appeal is inarguably one of the reasons it has been such a magnet for suicides, and the film is careful to emphasize the bridge's quotidian nature as well. Cars and bicycles traverse the main span on their daily commutes. Bridge workers eat their lunch in the shade of the massive structure. A newlywed couple pauses for a photograph. But the music is pensive, and everyone is suspect. Then, without warning, the camera pans to a middle-aged man lifting a leg over the guardrail. He pauses only momentarily before plunging 220 feet at 75mph into the choppy waters below.

In the first five minutes, Steel has captured the stunning beauty of the bridge as well as the attention of the audience with the shocking footage of the first jumper. At this point, the film teeters on a precipice from which one false move could send it into a genre with Faces of Death and Shock Video. Instead, what follows is an insightful documentary about the taboo subject of mental illness and the lingering effects of those left in the wake of suicide.

Interviews with family members and friends of victims provide insight into the life circumstances and events leading up to the final jump. The victims do not fit a certain mold. There are teenage girls and elderly men. There are those with no family to speak of, and those whose families had exhausted every attempt to save them. There are those with tragic pasts and those who had simply finally succumbed to a constant and general malaise. There were some who showed no hesitation, and others who paced the main span for much longer — some even left and returned time and again before jumping. In this way, the film exposes mental illness as a disease that can affect anyone, often without rational explanation.

The film also addresses issues of civic responsibility, calling attention to the long standing debate over whether to erect a suicide barrier. Though other landmarks with high suicide rates, such as the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building, have virtually eliminated deaths with the addition of barriers, bridge officials have balked at the idea. Factors such as aesthetic appeal, financial considerations, and the prevailing attitude that those deterred will simply resort to other means have prevented barrier construction. One man who actually survived the jump, Kevin Hines, shares his story. As he stood contemplating the jump with tears streaming down his face, a tourist approached and asked him to take a picture. Concluding that no one really cared, his decision to jump was solidified. He asserts that such impulsive acts could be prevented, and is currently traveling the country to share his story and appear at board meetings to advocate of the addition of the barriers.

Unlike the victims of the September 11th tragedy who faced the horrific decision of jumping from the twin towers or burning to death inside, those who willingly throw themselves from the Golden Gate Bridge are not commonly looked upon with empathy or sympathy. But hearing Steele speak after the Chicago premiere, it seems that these men and women have more in common after all. Steele asserts that the bridge jumpers had reached a similar point of no return, a desperate need to escape from a kind of psychological inferno. He seeks to inform the public that these are not irrational people without regard for human life, but real men and women suffering from a misunderstood and treatable disease. And though the title would indicate otherwise, in some ways this film is not about the bridge at all. It's about the reasons that lead to so many tortured souls making it their final destination.

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About the Author(s)

Shelley Gryz is a writer in Chicago.

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