An opinion article on Eric Steel's film, "The Bridge".
Please Note: The following entry/article deals with the topic of suicide, and with the graphic forensics of death resulting from one particular form of suicide Not intended to offend nor disturb those who are sensitive to this issue. For additional support, information and resources, please scroll to the bottom of this entry. In addition, all of the information discussed in this entry is available within the public domain. Acknowledgments are given in brackets [ ] For reference, this entry will also be posted as a ‘Static item’ in my port.
At the end of April, 2004, while severely jet-lagged and ‘high’ on love, I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time ever-that landmark, infamous structure that connects San Francisco to Marin County, California. That surreal day was clear, with a hint of light mist billowing eerily around the looming rust-orange towers. Once ecstatically on the other side, we hastily stopped at a lookout, and my soon-to-be fiancée eagerly and graciously snapped pictures of me standing with ‘that bridge’ towering in the background. Back at his house, five hours later, I attached those very same pictures to an email message to friends and family members back home in New Zealand, with just the subject line: “I Made It!”. Our next trip across the Golden Gate was headed north in July, 2004 to catch our flight to New Zealand to get married. In that seemingly short space of time, numerous people had used the Golden Gate Bridge as their instrument of suicide. That same year, a producer and director named Eric Steel and his camera crew, camped out around that bridge, for what the county, city and bridge authorities thought was to capture the allure of the bridge and its surrounding landscapes. The film crew took around 1000 hours worth of film.
However, what film director Eric Steel was also actually doing, in glaring, grim reality, was filming 23 of the 24 ‘jumpers’ take their lives on that bridge. In his subsequent documentary film, “The Bridge” (2006), he explores the beauty and pathos of the Golden Gate Bridge, as both an American icon celebrating life and legacy, and as a haunting, raw and rare documentation of suicide deaths. (The film is rated “R” and is an independent film production).
The Golden Gate Bridge has long been considered to be the world’s most popular, accessible and alluring place from which ‘jumpers’ can take their own lives. The majority of documented suicides, jump from particular light-posts on the eastern side of the bridge, closest to San Francisco itself [Infoaesthetics]. Some commentators have suggested that there is something about victims wanting to face inwards. The main railing is a little over four feet in height, with the ledge directly beneath that, equally reachable. At an average speed of 75mph, the suicidal fall takes four seconds and is fatal in 98% of all cases [San Francisco Chronicle] The Coast Guard has a boat on standby almost continually, staffed by people wearing “HazMat” suits and masks-apparently to counteract possible leaking body fluids as victims are recovered from San Francisco Bay ["The Bridge"].
Throughout this film, the life and demise of one particular young man is utilized as an ongoing motif. His name is Gene (Eugene) Sprague. I use the term ‘is’ because Gene’s memory, writing and artistic work has since been steadfastly maintained online by his numerous friends—something that they say that probably would have pissed him off. Yet, perhaps ironically, this director and his crew filmed Gene pacing the bridge for a total of 93 minutes. Because Gene was in a public place, this somehow made this permissible. At least, in the judgment of the film-crew, it did. Or, did it?. Much was made in the film of Gene’s longstanding expressions of the desire to take his own life. But, who are we to judge Gene for his views, choices and actions?. Even as we sit in the comfort of our viewer-ship, Gene’s solitary, prowling figure is jarring, un-nerving and, ultimately, heart-breaking to encounter.
So, was Steel’s filming of Gene (in a clearly agitated state) permissible?. Moreover, Steel took no direct action to aid Gene while filming him, which is also mildly disturbing. Why?. In defense of “The Bridge” Steel and his crew claimed that they were regularly in close contact with authorities whenever they spotted someone on the bridge who may be a potential ‘jumper’. Perhaps this background information goes some way towards explaining away some of the negative public reaction that branded the documentary close to something like a stinking snuff film. Nonetheless, the film was contentious, regardless of differing standpoints on this particular bridge being used by people choosing to take their own lives. Some people worried that Steel's film would merely elevate the bridge to cult status amongst vulnerable people. Others, wrestled with the morality of Steel having embarked on a project which, from the get-go, may have been under-hand and mis-leading in its intentions.
For these reasons, amongst others, I think that Steel’s film, “The Bridge” is a double-edged sword. It leaves behind more troubling questions than it gives answers to. As active participant observers the film crew appears to have been exploitative and manipulative, yet they were casting the light on the desperate shadow of a story-deep, dark and disturbing— and yet, is one that cries out to be told. Which then begs the question, where does the line exist between balancing the integrity of artistic and creative works and acting in the best and most ethical interests of a wider public?. It may be, I suggest, as delicate as the subject matter of the film itself.
For about as long as the Golden Gate Bridge has been in existence, (70 years) there has been ongoing debate about the construction of a suicide barrier, as a deterrent rather than a preventive safety measure. The scale and scope of the debate has varied widely over time, and has included practical considerations such as cost, aesthetics, structural integrity of the bridge itself, the historical significance of the bridge, and disruption to other bridge users, as well as moral and emotional stances and viewpoints. Around 1300 people make up the suicide statistics for the Golden Gate Bridge since it was opened in 1938 [Source: Marin County Coroner, 2008]. An average of one person every 15 days of the year is counted as a suicide statistic on the Golden Gate. Currently, the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors is in the process of conducting a Suicide Deterrent System study, first initiated in the Fall of 2006. There are three basic concepts being subjected to wind-testing and further engineering research and development. These include, adding to the existing railing, replacing the existing railing, or utilizing nets that cantilever out horizontally [Source: Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Deterrent Study, 2007]. A final discussion document is now anticipated to become available in late 2008. Meanwhile, Marin County Coroner, Ken Holmes, has released figures for 2007. At least 35 people are known to have died from committing suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. The youngest person was 14 years old, and the oldest was 84 [Source: Bridge Rail Foundation Press Release]. Still further, and equally as troubling, 70% of last year's suicides were witnessed by bridge pedestrians and commuters[Source: Bridge Rail Foundation Press Release, 2008].
A sign posted at various key points along the bridge tries to offer some form of redemption, precisely where and when some may feel that there is none at all. Its white letters on a bright blue background say simply: “Crisis Counselling. There is Hope. Make The Call. The Consequences of Jumping From This Bridge Are Fatal and Tragic.” Much earlier, in 1923, the poet George Sterling wrote : “Tho the dark be cold and blind,/Yet her sea fog’s touch is kind/And her mightier caress/Is the joy and pain thereof/And great is thy tenderness/O cool grey city of love!”[Wikipedia].
For me, the GGB will forever be symbolic of my beginning a new life in a foreign land-that romantic and idealistic and majestic United States of America, and of a belated painful realization. That no-one held out their hand to Gene that terrible day, May 11, 2004, and said, “Gene-you can make it, too”.
Dedicated to the Memory and Life of Eugene (Gene) Sprague
(December 11, 1969-May 11, 2004)
Friend, Tad “Jumpers” New Yorker Magazine.
Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District:
Golden gate bridge suicides: data visualization and visual design (2006)
Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Deterrent System Study:
Holmes, Ken (2008) ‘Gate Bridge Suicide Death Toll: At Least 35 in 2007-’ Marin County Coroner’s Office, California.
The Bridge Rail Foundation:
Zinko C, (2007) ‘An inside look at who jumps’ San Francisco Chronicle:
SUICIDE RESOURCES & CRISIS SUPPORT.
- DO Talk, Listen and Care.
-DON’T wait to get professional help-even if the person who you love ‘jokes’ about having suicidal thoughts.
-A little empathy and compassion matters a lot to anyone in the midst of a crisis.
-Asking for help implies personal strength, NOT any kind weakness or failure, nor is it a fuck-up on your part.
-If you want to talk about any of the issues raised in my article, please do not hesitate to email me on this site. I also have the same SN on MySpace, if you prefer to use that venue. Or, email me and ask for my offline email address, Skype chat details, or my private home number. Don’t think I won’t care-even if I don’t know you.
For IMMEDIATE assistance within the U.S: Call 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-TALK  (National (U.S) Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE/1-800-784-2433)
California Crisis Line (714) 441-1414
In the United Kingdom-helpline: 08457909090 (U.K local rate)
***You are never truly alone, no matter how low you feel***