The Gate Escape

Eric Steel on 'The Bridge'

The Gate Escape

It is a beautiful day of the kind only found in Northern California. The sky is blue, the clouds billowy, the air crisp, the water blue frothing over to white as it laps up against the reinforced concrete support pilings sunk deep into the seabed. The most famous bridge in the world, San Francisco's Golden Gate, itself a spectacular vermilion, rises up from it.

It is, literally, a picture-postcard scene, perfect right down to the tourists milling back and forth across the pedestrian walkway, their cameras and delighted smiles gleaming in that monumentally pure sort of California sunshine.

And then one of them, a young man named Gene, stops walking.

"I watched Gene walk back and forth on the bridge for 93 minutes," says Eric Steel, who directed the controversial new documentary The Bridge. "And for 92 minutes and 55 seconds, he looked like every other tourist on the bridge. He wasn't panicked. He wasn't crying. He just spent 93 minutes on the bridge on a very beautiful day. There were thousands of people on that bridge, on that day, and we were filming them all. And then at 92 minutes and 55 seconds, he turned around and sat backward on the rail, and then he jumped."

Steel's film has been labeled "suicide porn" and "a snuff movie" by some camps, but The Bridge, while inarguably a solemn and intense experience (which, strangely, is exactly 93 minutes long), includes not only footage of suicides and would-be suicides – there were 24 in 2004 alone – but also interviews with family members, friends, and, remarkably, one young man who actually survived the 220-foot, seven-second drop into the frigid, choppy bay. Steel and his cameras are not in pursuit of death but rather the ability to fathom the desperation and the unnameable, unanswerable dread of life that drives people to cross over a steel railing into oblivion.

And despite its grim subject, the bridge itself, indeed the whole Bay area seen throughout the film, is breathtaking in its simple, matter-of-fact splendor. In the midst of this most romanticized of American cities, surrounded on all sides by life and nothing but, why do some people choose death? And why did Steel, for his directorial debut, choose this mordantly compelling subject?

"I was sitting at my desk, exactly where I am now," the director says, "and I watched as the World Trade Centers were hit and then fell, and I was very aware of the people who jumped out of the building. I could actually see that from where I sit now. Obviously, that's one of those things that you just can't erase from your mind. Then when I read The New Yorker article, in October of 2003, about the Golden Gate Bridge being the most popular suicide destination in the world and that people were jumping off the bridge, you know, all the time, it just hit a chord and established a connection between the two. Someone jumping off the bridge was making a choice to escape an emotional inferno, perhaps not equivalent, but somehow related perhaps to what I had seen on 9/11."

Steel and his crew, who filmed the bridge from two angles every day for one year, took every precaution to attempt to intervene when a suicide appeared to be in progress (a fact not noted in the film and that accounts for nearly all of the ethical backlash against it), but if there's one thing the director learned, it's that "it's virtually impossible to tell when a person is going to attempt to jump.

"I think people's initial reaction upon seeing the film is 'Why didn't we do more to stop them, the jumpers?' And although I never felt compelled to put it into the film, we did stop and save people. All of us had the police and the coast guard on speed dial on our cell phones.

"We saved six people's lives, and I don't know a single filmmaker in the world who can say that. It's not something we pat ourselves on the back for, but it is one of the byproducts of us having been there, doing what we were doing."

The Bridge opens in Austin on Friday, Jan. 26. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.

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