Suicide and the Golden Gate

Viewers of "The Bridge," Eric Steel's new documentary about suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, won't have to wonder for long what it feels like to sit in a movie theater seat, waiting to watch someone commit suicide. After a three-minute opening sequence of postcard-perfect images—the iconic art deco towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising through the fog, cruise ships and pelicans drifting over an impossibly beautiful horizon—the camera zooms in on a heavy, middle-aged man in a green T shirt who clambers over the railing with startling speed, settles into a sitting position for just a moment, then hurls himself face first, his feet pedaling in midair, until, a few seconds later, he splashes into the waters of the San Francisco Bay. The death is the first of nearly two dozen suicides that Steel and his crew recorded when they set their cameras on the bridge in 2004, capturing every daylight moment for a year. "Most suicides take place in extreme privacy," says Steel. "I wondered about people who chose to kill themselves in public. Are they thinking 'I will be seen and remembered?' The other part is, maybe people who choose the bridge think, 'If I can be seen, I can be saved'."

The death scenes are only a fraction of "The Bridge," which instead focuses on the back stories of the "jumpers." Through interviews with friends and family members of the deceased, as well as traumatized eyewitnesses, Steel paints a clear-eyed portrait of those who jumped—and the circumstances leading to their public deaths. "It's clear in hindsight that almost everyone left clues," he says. "As a society, though, we aren't usually trained to recognize those clues." Steel says he got the idea for the movie, which opens next week in selected cities, after reading a 2003 New Yorker article chronicling the Golden Gate's status as the world's leading suicide magnet. Each year, according to authorities, approximately two dozen people kill themselves by leaping from the 220-foot-high span. Since the bridge opened in 1937, the San Francisco Chronicle has recorded more than 1,200 deaths. (Several years ago, in response to a request from the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, local media stopped reporting the total number of leaps, box-score style, in order to discourage jumpers who wanted to become the 500th or 1,000th suicide.) Steel says he was "shocked" by the resistance of local authorities to erect a suicide barrier, citing aesthetic and cost concerns. "You can be sure that if two dozen people a year threw themselves under the cable cars, they would do something about it in an instant."

Filming required a fair amount of deception. Steel took out a film permit, claiming he planned a movie on national landmarks and set to work. At the time, bridge and Homeland Security officials were concerned about terrorist threats, and though they looked through Steel's cameras several times to make sure he was not monitoring security patterns, they never revoked his film permit. Steel says he and his camera crew decided to "be human beings first" and to intervene whenever they suspected someone was about to jump. They programmed the numbers of bridge-security patrols into their cell-phone speed dials and consulted with suicide-prevention counselors about signs to watch for, such as people removing shoes or wallets, or placing bags on the sidewalk. Steel credits his film crew (who were stationed too far from the bridge to physically stop jumpers) with getting the authorities to six people in time for them to be saved. But, he says, it quickly became apparent that visual clues were hard to decipher. "I thought it would be easy to spot the suicidal people. They'd be pulling their hair and mumbling," says Steel. "We saw thousands of people on the bridge crying. We saw lots of people pacing, mumbling to themselves. It was the man on the cell phone, talking, laughing, who puts it down, then jumps. Very often their actions mask the discontent on the inside. That's what you are not counting on."

To make this point, the camera often focuses on despondent-looking individuals, leaving the viewer to wonder if they are about to jump (usually, they're not). One of the most gripping interviews comes with a rare jump survivor, Kevin Hines, 25, who talks about standing on the bridge for 40 minutes, trying to decide whether to throw himself off . The only person who approached him was a German tourist, who asked if he would take his picture. Moments later, Hines jumped, but realized as his feet left the bridge, he says, "that I wanted to live." He landed feet first, shattering several bones.

The film has provoked an uproar in San Francisco. One city supervisor, who also serves as a bridge district commissioner, refused to be interviewed for what he called a "snuff movie." Bridge officials say their patrols successfully stop 70 percent of suicide attempts, a fact not mentioned in the film.Wary that the attention surrounding the film could provoke further copycat leaps, they have also raged against Steel for deceiving them about the purpose of his film permit and warned media not to add to the hype. (Steel says he didn't announce the real reason for his filming because he didn't want to attract mentally ill people eager for cameos in the movie.) But the film has received a surprising embrace from the mental-health community, which will sponsor a screening next week in San Francisco. "One of the problems you have in the prevention field is that no one talks about suicide," says Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. "It's only when you talk frankly about the mystery that surrounds suicide and show people that suicides are preventable, they are not inevitable, that the myths can be replaced with facts. Suicide is a very impulsive act. As you can see from the interviews with survivors, it drives a truck through families."

"The Bridge" is also certain to reignite the local debate over erecting a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate. For years, officials have held off, citing engineering considerations as well as aesthetic concerns about marring the bridge's iconic profile. A 2005 film, "The Joy of Life" by activist Jenni Olson, prompted by her friend's suicide from the bridge, reopened the discussion in the media and persuaded several new bridge commissioners to consider barrier options. Last month, the Bridge authority authorized a $2 million engineering study to propose and wind-test barrier designs. Options include a new railing (the current one is only four-feet high) and a net, similar to the one erected during the bridge's construction in 1937. Costs are estimated at $15 million to $25 million. But the engineering challenges are significant: the 4,200-foot span has the engineering dynamics of an airplane wing and notoriously harsh wind conditions. "We can't just slap a chain-link fence up and say, OK, the project's done'," says bridge district spokeswoman Mary Currie. "What people have to realize is that we are trying to safely operate a major transportation structure that has become a suicide magnet." For that reason, says Currie, the Golden Gate Bridge cannot be fairly compared to the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, both onetime suicide magnets that now have barriers.

If attention generated by "The Bridge" leads to the construction of a barrier, says Steel, the controversy will have been worth it. Despite positive reviews and packed houses at film festivals, distributors proved so squeamish about the subject matter that Steel says he finally decided to finance the film's limited distribution himself. "The Bridge" opens Oct. 27 in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.