Eric Steel didn’t exactly make it easy for himself with his directorial debut. THE BRIDGE not only tackles suicide, but it also does so in a direct, visceral way that can’t help but provoke controversy. He, like his film, is quiet and thoughtful on the subject, but also partisan in what he feels are the failings in society that turn a blind eye to mental illness.
When I spoke with him on October 3, 2006, he addressed the issues of exploitation and subterfuge head on, as well as what drove him to spend a year thinking, filming, and, you’ll pardon the expression, living this subject.
Eric Steel’s documentary THE BRIDGE is strong stuff, taking as it does the taboos of both death and of suicide and focusing on them without flinching. Almost the first image on screen is that of an anonymous someone stepping over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and while the world goes on around him, peaceful and unseeing, he steps off the edge, plunges down, and disappears into the water. It’s almost too fast for the mind to take in, and eerie in the very silence of it, the quiet slipping from this life with barely a splash. There are none of the cinematic cues that we’ve been trained to expect, no blood, no sound of impact, nothing gratuitous. It’s a stark statement of fact.
Steel spent every day for a year, sun up to sun down, filming the eastern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, the side used by virtually all jumpers and. Using telephoto lenses, his cameras capture the astonishing differences in behavior of people about to plunge to the bay below at speeds that make impact with the surface of the water like hitting cement. Some are calm and deliberate. Others pace back and forth, visibly upset yet oddly invisible to the other people walking by them. One in particular, Gene Sprague, punctuates the film, pacing back and forth, dressed all in black, the wind whipping his long black hair, even from the distance that the camera can’t compensate for, all but thunderously wailing as he walks back and forth like a wild animal in a cage. As with the others who will jump, we hear the story of his life and meet the people he cared about and care about him. At the end of the film, when he climbs over the railing, even though it is the same motion as that jump that started the film, it is a completely different experience to watch. In fact, it is all but unbearable to see.
By the end, Steel has made his point, and has done so by personalizing all the people who, by different paths, all ended up jumping from the same place. THE BRIDGE, is no longer a statistic, but a fully realized human being, who was failed by the system and is worthy of being both remembered and mourned as someone might have been saved.